December 08, 2008

Geeking Out

Check out what I found: an audio recording of Flannery O'Connor speaking on "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction" (slightly different from the version in Mystery and Manners) and reading "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." Awesome!

And let me just confirm, the reports of her accent are not exaggerated.

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September 03, 2008

List Compulsion Meme

Considering the haphazard, spotty quality of this list, I definitely don't feel saddened by my haphazard, spotty experience with it. Nevertheless, it is a fun list. Of course, coming from me, that means nothing . . . have I mentioned that I love lists?

Via Scholl.

1) Bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you own.
3) Underline the books for which you have seen a movie or TV production.

1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman (Really?)
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D'Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (in-progress, but well over half)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller's Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 leak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen (Rather a lot Austen . . . and this one's pretty obscure)
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis (Hmmm . . . didn't I pretty much just see this on here?)
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli's Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown (The list fails. The end.)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving (Also known as Simon Birch)
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen (Yeah, definitely Austen-heavy.)
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley (Gattaca should count as a movie version)
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon (Avoid. Avoid. Avoid.)
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett (Ick.)
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens (Ad nauseum. Quite a lot of Dickens, as well.)
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte's Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom (C'mon, what gives here?)
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad (Apocalypse Now TOTALLY counts.)
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery (One of those tiresome "children's" books that was really written for adults.)
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams (Bunny book!)
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare (This list seems to lack an awareness of metonymy.)
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

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March 18, 2008

Farewell, Grand Master

Arthur C. Clarke died today in Sri Lanka, which he has called home for over 50 years. He was 90. Clarke was one of only two dozen currently acknowledged Grand Masters of Science Fiction, an elite group that includes the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. His death leaves Ray Bradbury as the last surviving member of the even more elite "big four" writers of modern science fiction.

I've read several of his books, including 2001: A Space Odyssey and the magnificent Rendesvouz with Rama, but not any of the Space Odyssey sequels or his famous stand-alone Childhood's End. His final novel, co-written with Stephen Baxter (their fourth collaboration), was published three months ago.

In any case, he was a great author with a great mind, and he will be missed. However, he certainly won't be forgotten anytime soon. I was very pleased to note that a Rendesvouz with Rama film is currently slated for release in 2009. It will star Morgan Freeman and be directed by David Fincher (of Se7en, Fight Club and Zodiac). Fantastic news.

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February 27, 2008

Planet Narnia

Someone made a discovery a few years ago that I completely missed, recounted in great detail in the book Planet Narnia, and in sketchy detail here. The author makes a strong case for each of the seven Chronicles of Narnia having an intentional thematic correspondence with one of the seven medieval planets, that is: Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. The correspondences, according to this scholar, are: LWW - Jupiter, PC - Mars, VDT - Sun, SC - Moon, HHB - Mercury, MN - Venus, LB - Saturn.

Of course, I'm always fascinated by this sort of thing, and the post is quite interesting. I kind of want to read the book now, and really want to read Lewis's poem "The Planets" (which doesn't seem to exist online, sadly).

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February 26, 2008

The Sharpton Challenge Strikes Back

There are two good reasons for selecting that title for my response to this. The first is that this is a sequel. As to the second, well . . . The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that I don't have many favorite sci-fi characters outside of Star Wars, I have favorite sci-fi authors: Wells, Verne, Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, LeGuin, Zahn, etc.

There are a few exceptions to this: R. Daneel Olivaw (Asimov's epic, multi-series future earth saga), Academician Prokhor Zakharov (Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri), Sarah Kerrigan (StarCraft). Then there are movies and TV shows . . . Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, Firefly. But with a few exceptions, what I really appreciate there, too, are the plots (and, it has to be said, the special effects).

So this has to be a list of my favorite characters (pretty much a list of scum and villainy, as it were) from the Star Wars Expanded Universe, as anyone who ever read this post will understand:

1.) Han Solo: Han Solo is, very clearly, the best character from the movies (although generally far cooler before he let a certain princess get his number). So, if you really like that pre-infatuation Solo, you'll love the fact that there are several EU books devoted to that period of his life, and several more that let him go off on his own and really live up to that name. And several of them are pretty good. Favorite moments: Anything involving Han in an asteroid belt. Most notably the chase scene from The Empire Strikes Back and the hilarious attempt to live up to that former glory and best piloting records (set by his own children) in Vector Prime.

2.) Corran Horn: This guy has it all. He's a Corellian fighter pilot who becomes a Jedi, and stars in a significant percentage of my favorite Star Wars books, including the amazing X-Wing series. Favorite moments: His derring-do investigations as a member of CorSec in "Side Trip," revelation of the jaw-dropping twist at the end of The Krytos Trap and unexpected battle against five saber-wielding Dark Jedi in I, Jedi (which Luke has to bail him out of).

3.) Grand Admiral Thrawn: A blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss alien who managed the rank of Grand Admiral in the extremely xenophobic Imperial Navy by dint of his unmatched tactical genius. He attributed his insight into the enemy to a rigorous study of the art of whatever race he came up against. Whatever works, man. Whatever works. Favorite moment: Pretty much anything he says or does in the Thrawn Trilogy.

4.) Mara Jade Skywalker: Kinda like Han, Mara was much cooler before she married into the Skywalker family. She was much closer to the right idea when she attempted to kill Luke on their first meeting, a holdover response dictated by her days working as a Force-sensitive secret assassin taking orders directly from Emperor Palpatine. Ah, well. She still pulls some pretty sweet stunts from time to time. Favorite moments: Probably the exciting investigation of the Hand of Thrawn complex in the Thrawn duology.

5.) Wes Janson: Janson is actually a character from the original movies, but not many casual viewers could tell you when or where. He's one of the pilots during the Battle of Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. However, his best work is collaborating with Wedge Antilles as part of both Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron, as detailed by Aaron Allston. Favorite moments: Three words, "Yub yub, Commander."

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January 17, 2008

Good to Know

In the brown book in my sabretache there was the tale of an angel (perhaps actually one of the winged women warriors who are said to serve the Autarch) who, coming to Urth on some petty mission or other, was struck by a child's arrow and died. With her gleaming robes all dyed by her heart's blood even as the boulevards were stained by the expiring life of the sun, she encountered Gabriel himself. His sword blazed in one hand, his great two-headed ax swung in the other, and across his back, suspended on the rainbow, hung the very battle horn of Heaven.

"Where wend you, little one," asked Gabriel, "with your breast more scarlet than a robin's?"

"I am killed," the anged said, "and I return to merge my substance once more with the Pancreator."

"Do not be absurd. You are an angel, a pure spirit, and cannot die."

"But I am dead," said the angel, "nevertheless. You have observed the wasting of my blood - do you not observe also that it no longer issues in straining spurtings, but only seeps sluggishly? Note the pallor of my countenance. Is not the touch of an angel warm and bright? Take my hand and you will imagine you hold a horror new dragged from some stagnant pool. Taste my breath - is it not fetid, foul, and nidorous?"

Gabriel answered nothing, and at last the angel said, "Brother and better, even if I have not convinced you with all my proofs, I pray you stand aside. I would rid the universe of my presence."

"I am convinced indeed," Gabriel said, stepping from the other's way. "It is only that I was thinking that had I known we might perish, I would not at all times have been so bold."

-The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe, Part I of The Book of the New Sun

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January 11, 2008

The Sharpton Challenge

Sharpton wants to know favorite fantasy characters and archetypes. Can't resist that. I've been reading fantasy for as long as I've been reading, and I like a lot of different characters for a lot of different reasons . . . So a request like that took some serious thought.

A younger part of me is drawn to the most crowd-pleasing characters: cucumber-cool swashbucklers (like Inigo Montoya), plucky comic relief (like Puddleglum, although he's so much more), or a combination of both (like Reepicheep, probably my earliest favorite fictional character post-Sesame Street).

On the other hand, from a literary perspective I have a deep appreciation of morally-ambiguous characters who are often wily and unscrupulous, or who struggle with some sort of inner-conflict (Severus Snape and Remus Lupin, for example, are two of my three favorite characters from Harry Potter). In fact, the villains can often be the most fascinating or even likable characters in some stories (like Steerpike, the strangely-charismatic villain of the Gormenghast novels). Magneto is by far the most interesting character of the X-Men movie trilogy. Davy Jones is quite possibly the most colorful movie villain since Darth Vader. Illidan Stormrage, is definitely my personal favorite of the epic-sized WarCraft cast.

But I'll stop cheating and dropping extra names and move on to the characters I chose, in chronological order of origin (newest to oldest):

1.) Jonathan Strange: Central character in Susanna Clarke's amazing 2004 work, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Strange is an extremely intelligent (though frequently unwise) young man with an amazing affinity for magic. He becomes the apprentice of Mr. Norrell, the only magician in early 19th-Century England, and uses his skill on the battlefield to help the Duke of Wellington defeat Napoleon Bonaparte (though this accounts only a fraction of the massive and intricate 800-page novel).

2.) Hermione Granger: The "cleverest witch of her generation," Hermione is clearly the greatest character of the "Terrible Trio." She always has the answer if anyone does, and if they don't, she'll be the first to get it (this doesn't always work out for her, though, cf. Chamber of Secrets). Impossible to dislike, I guess she's a bit of an obvious choice, but that's why she's a favorite.

3.) Sparrowhawk: Central character of Ursula K. LeGuin's magnificent Earthsea series which, on top of being beautifully written, is the next best thing to reading a backstory for Gandalf. Sparrowhawk (whose true name is Ged) is an extremely gifted wizard, though his skillful arrogance led to big trouble in his youth. However, he eventually matures into one of the greatest archwizards the Earthsea archipelago has ever seen, becoming almost as wise as he is intelligent along the way.

4.) Gandalf the Grey: Gandalf is the fantasy wizard, and the fantasy character I've probably come closest to straight-up worshipping. In fact, he may just be the greatest fantasy character ever. Note that I say "the Grey" rather than "the White" or simply "Gandalf." I always kind of preferred him before his rebirth, not only because grey is my favorite color (probably because of Gandalf, so chicken and egg) and white is boring, but because Gandalf the Grey was a lot more fun. Death took a lot of the perpetual twinkle out of his eye. Also, Gandalf the Grey was a great deal more fallible, which made both him and his adventures more interesting, if not quite as uber.

5.) Merlin: If Gandalf is the wizard of modern fantasy then Merlin is simply The Wizard. Not only is he the ultimate source of pretty much all fictional wizardkind, but in many ways he is a large percentage of the wizard population. Featured in fiction for centuries by everyone from Mark Twain to C.S. Lewis, Merlin stars under his own name in countless series and incarnations, popping in musicals, movies, video games . . . you name it. My personal favorite depiction is the lovable humanist Merlyn from T.H. White's Once and Future King. An often comedic, but deeply compassionate, version of the wizard, Merlyn lives his life backwards in time, with simultaneously amusing and confusing results.

Favorite archetype (pretty obvious by now):
Wizard - Even when they don't know everything, they know a lot more than everyone else. Their characters often arc from Smart Young Man to Wise Old Man, with all sorts of fantastic happenings along the way. Their abilities, beyond being extremely cool and powerful, possess an almost infinite variety. No offense, but there are only so many ways to swing a sharp object (and George Lucas ran through them all quite exhaustively in his Star Wars prequel trilogy). I love a good sword fight as much as the next guy, but a writer has to work pretty hard and be pretty thick to get magic to appear stale and boring.

And there you have it. As long as we're talking about fantasy, have a look at this fantastic trailer for Harry Potter and the Chronicles of the Lord of the Golden Compass of the Jedi.

Posted by Jared at 08:17 PM | TrackBack

October 26, 2007

Too Gay or Not Too Gay

If you're reading this here now, chances are good that you already read elsewhere a few days ago that J.K. Rowling stated that Albus Dumbledore, beloved headmaster of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books, is gay. You may not have heard, but four days before Rowling outed Dumbledore, she also declared that the content and imagery of her books is, indeed, explicitly Christian. What do these revelations have in common? Neither of them can change what has already been written.

And yet, I can't help but feel a little irritated at the level to which discourse about the books will now be permitted, nay forced, to sink. I'm not irritated at Rowling, mind you. She revealed her thoughts on Dumbledore in response to a direct question from an audience member. I don't think she was trying to drop a bombshell. What I do think is that sexual orientation doesn't play a role in the books, therefore it shouldn't play a role in the already muddied and inane waters of public discourse about the books. Insofar as the series is a prolonged argument for diversity and tolerance, there is an implicit acceptance of homosexuality, but the subject simply does not come up.

I am no great respecter of authorial intent. I have long believed that, as interesting and even illuminating as an author's insight can be, a work of fiction will speak for itself in ways that even the best writer could never have foreseen. I've been arguing for over three years that Harry Potter is Christian fantasy. It's obvious. It's in the books. That's the way Rowling wrote it, and nothing that she says can make it any more or less true. As gratifying as it was to hear it confirmed, I was surprised that she felt that she needed to. On the flip side, Dumbledore's alleged homosexuality flew so far under the radar that not even Rita Skeeter nosed it up in one of her muck-raking columns about him in book 7. It just wasn't in there.

Take a look at this rather good pair of articles by John Mark Reynolds, philosophy professor at Biola (is Martinez familiar with that name, I wonder?). I'm not sure I agree with everything he says, or perhaps I just don't agree with how he says it, but it's a good, level-headed piece of writing. "Taking Stories More Seriously Than the Author: Dumbledore is not Gay, Dumbledore is not Hetero."

This is a non-issue masquerading as an issue. If you pick a side, you automatically lose. Whether you happily accept Dumbledore as a gay character or disgustedly condemn Rowling for her declaration it says something about you, and nothing about Harry Potter, either as literature, entertainment, or anything else. As someone who understands that homosexuality is a highly-charged and deeply-complicated issue involving real people, I resent the assumptions produced by holding either opinion about Dumbledore. You know what I mean . . . If you think it's okay that Dumbledore is gay, you hate children and family values. If you think it isn't okay that Dumbledore is gay, you're a bible-thumping homophobe . . . that sort of thing.

Guess what? I don't care whether Dumbledore is gay or not. I realize (and resent) that making a big deal out of this makes me sound like I do, but I honestly couldn't be less interested. He is a fascinating and wonderful character, and I love him as I love everything else about the Harry Potter books. What I do care about is the irrelevancy of the topic to anything important in Harry Potter and the lack of maturity that results from its introduction.

On the one side, seriously, what's to be so giddy about? Check this out. Stop dancing around like you've just scored a victory that you can rub the other side's face in. On the other side, there is the equally childish "ewwy" reaction . . . particularly annoying when it comes from long-time fans of the series who now find themselves "turned off" by something that they didn't even catch while they were reading (because it wasn't actually there).

And, moving from childish to juvenile, we've got the people snickering in the back about Dumbledore wanting to hold Harry's "wand" and how now it makes sense that he never left Hogwarts to become Minister of Magic. Grow up. Isn't it funny how no one ever thought Dumbledore stayed for the little girls, but as soon as someone says he's gay he must like the little boys? When did homosexuality become a synonym for pedophilia? In any case, this is precisely why the subject should never have come up. It denigrates the discourse rather than elevating it. Our society simply isn't mature enough to talk about this like adults yet. It may never be mature enough.

I rewatched an old favorite last night: Anatomy of a Murder. It's a courtroom drama starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie was made in 1959, and there's one scene in particular that's always just blown my mind. The trial involves a murder and an alleged rape, and the rape victim's panties play a key role. When the subject first comes up, the judge makes a point of standing up and announcing that panties will be part of the discussion. The whole courtroom cracks up, and he tells them he wanted them to get their chuckles out now so the trial could continue.

It's hard to believe that a mere 50 years ago, a roomful of people older than the age of 12 could find the mere mention of the word "panties" so hilarious . . . and yet, watching the furor over "Dumbledore is gay" I realize I shouldn't really be surprised. We haven't progressed all that much. I think that may be what gets to me most of all . . . even participating in this discussion as though it were important makes me feel like I'm in junior high.

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July 26, 2007

It Is Finished

Potterheads rejoice! The 7th book is out, most of you have finished it (if you haven't . . . spoiler warning!), and it is a worthy final chapter in an epically-good series that I will relish sharing with fellow readers for some time to come. Rachel, having seen the first five movies and heard the first book read aloud (by me), wormed a partial summary of book six out of me so I could read Deathly Hallows out loud to her. Not what I would have done, but this is the girl that normally reads the ends of books first. I was just glad she didn't immediately jump to the epilogue and then tell me all about it.

I read about half of it aloud, and the rest we read separately. I finished on Sunday and she finished on Monday. Now she's started over . . . she read Sorceror's Stone and about half of Chamber yesterday. She probably would have read more, but I got irritable at about 2 in the morning when she kept exploding with shrieks of hysterical laughter and thrashing about while I was trying to sleep right next to her. I'm such a grump.

Anyway, back to Deathly Hallows. My expectations for this book were absolutely through the roof (no way to keep them down), and they were satisfied. This book has everything: weddings, funerals, high-speed, high-altitude chases, riddles, mysteries, sudden reversals, disguises, duels, a bank job, a battle . . . even a Grail quest! And it fills in perfectly all the gaps that were left in the story and backstory, all the way back to Dumbledore's early career. Awesome.

And, perhaps most important of all, I hope that anyone still saying these books cannot and do not speak profoundly and meaningfully of key Christian truths feels a right stupid git now. Harry selflessly walks to his death at Voldemort's hands and then finds himself in King's Cross for a discussion with Dumbledore about the deeper magic that Voldemort doesn't understand. He then returns to life where Voldemort is all ready to proclaim his triumphant victory, performing the cruciatus curse on Harry's limp body and lifting him into the air three times. Voldemort declares his supremacy to the still-defiant good guys, but they can't be hurt by him or his followers. They are protected from harm by Harry's blood sacrifice. Harry and Voldy then duel and Harry wins the final Hallow from him, becoming the "master of death."

Pretty blatant stuff.

As soon as I finished the book, I started combing the interwebs in search of others who "got it." I particularly wanted to see what John Granger had to say, but he's not covering the symbolism exhaustively just yet. If you start over at his blog, you'll find a fun list of 20 discussion points to look over. I commented on #12 (the Horcruxes and Hallows) because no one had mentioned the Grail aspects of the Quest.

In the meantime, while I await a more complete discussion of Deathly Hallows from Granger, I also discovered this. It's an outrageously long discussion of the Christian elements of Half-Blood Prince that Granger posted on a Barnes&Noble forum. Good reading, but sadly he eventually allowed himself to be drawn down into a rather silly and petty side-debate over the origins of Christianity (and came off rather badly, IMO) before the thread was locked by a moderator a few weeks later. But the initial post is interesting.

"Christianity Today" (long a bastion of enlightened reason regarding Harry amidst a sea of evangelical inanity and insanity) dove right in with a discussion of the latest books Christian elements. Good article.

And they aren't the only ones that noticed. "The Wall Street Journal" commented on it in their review, as well. (Thanks, Martinez.)

John Mark Reynolds at Scriptorium Daily soberly discusses his impressions of the final book and the series as a whole, as a reader who enjoyed them but is unsure of their literary merit or staying power. Here's more of the same from "Rafting the Tiber." Lots of good commentary out there, and I hope to stumble across some more as people have time to articulate.

Meanwhile, two more links: Remember those raving lunatics from "Exposing Satanism" that I discovered a few years back? No? Well, they're still around, but a lot of the stuff from their site isn't around anymore . . . this article is, though. It's good for an outraged laugh (sexual congress with goats?!), and there's some very clever (if self-defeating) symbology work. Reminds me of Dan Brown, oddly enough. And, finally, courtesy of Uncle Doug, here's an interview with Rowling in which she reveals some information that didn't make it into the epilogue. If you're feeling like you need some more closure, definitely check it out.

Posted by Jared at 04:43 PM | TrackBack

June 15, 2007

Reading Again

And wow, does it feel good.

I finished The Children of Hurin. Fantastic book . . . and I'm in awe of the amount of effort it must have taken to piece this book together so seamlessly. Without adding any significant prose of his own (I forget how he put it, exactly . . . but the claim is that essentially everything was written by the man himself) Christopher Tolkien has managed to turn a jumble of notes and half-written ideas, some of them conflicting, and make it look like it was composed in adeveloped and ordered fashion to begin with.

This would probably be a great gateway book for anyone having trouble transitioning from The Lord of the Rings to The Silmarillion. The book has a much less mythological/fantastical feel about it, I think, and more of literary/historical feel. I can really see Middle Earth here as a very ancient Britain full of things and events that history has forgotten.

And of course Tolkien uses this story to great effect as an exploration of the tragic flaw of pride and the many ways, foreseeable and unforeseeable, that it can bring us down, with a heavy undercurrent of fate vs. free will. Is Turin's doom inevitable, or necessitated only by his stubborn, prideful choices? Is his very nature an element of the curse that is on him, or could he change? And, on a deeper level, how responsible are we for our own sin nature, inescapable since the Fall? Fascinating questions wrapped up in an action-packed epic . . . Tolkien always delivers.

Speaking of Tolkien, and Inklings in general, I just heard about a few things; namely this and this. The gist: The former is a comic book, the latter is young adult fiction. Different authors, same premise: That Tolkien, Lewis, and Charles Williams didn't just write some of the greatest fantasy literature ever, they lived this stuff. The comic book has them squaring off against Aleister Crowley in 1938, while the other finds them meeting for the first time in 1919 and traipsing through all sorts of magical lands together.

The book is #1 in a proposed series of 7, and it has already been nabbed by Warner Bros. for the big screen. The concept is strangely horrifying and compelling all at the same time, but I'm gonna check it out. Perk of the job: I can just locate the book and go pull it for myself, or in this case, note that it is due back in four days, put it on reserve, and wait for it to appear on my desk next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, I also read through The Children of Men. Wow, what an amazing book. This is so beautifully written and deeply felt, quite possibly the best apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic that I have read. And what a stunning, effective premise! In 1995, human males lose the ability to impregnate women, and the book takes place in England in 2021, beginning on the day the youngest person in the world dies at the age of 25. Half of the story is narrated in the third person while the other half consists of excerpts from the diary of Theo Farron (the main character).

Children of Men, the film adaptation, was one of my favorite movies of the spring, and now this is certainly one of my favorite books of the year. I recommend both, with one sidenote: See the movie first, like I did. The two share absolutely nothing but the central premise and the names (but not necessarily roles) of major characters. These are very different stories with very different purposes, and I think the book deserves the final say. As a film, the movie version is great. As an adaptation, it is nothing.

Oh, and I finally finished Madame Bovary yesterday. And, while portions of it were very much like watching the grass grow, it was by equal turns absorbing and hilarious. The cast of characters was especially memorable, my favorite (of course) being the pompous windbag parody of Voltaire and his ilk, Monsieur Homais. While at first I wished the book had had the decency to end after its title character did, I found that I rather liked the ending after all.

I had gone to get Reading Lolita in Tehran, being determined to re-read it as previously mentioned, when I found something else to read first; an even better follow-up to Madame Bovary. The book is Little Children by Tom Perrotta, on which my surprise favorite movie of the Spring was based. I started it in the evening and, although I had to put it down almost immediately, I did so with great difficulty. The book began, in fact, with a brief quote from Madame Bovary, and then dove right in. I think I'm going to like it. Let's see . . . What else?

I'm reading Star Wars books again.

Yeah, yeah. Don't ask me what prompted it, I dunno . . . but I'm going through them all. I haven't opened one since before Episode III came out, and a lot of things have changed since then for various reasons. I want to survey (and re-survey) the territory and, in particular, discuss it . . . That's right, I know at least a few of you people have read heavily (or at least dabbled) in Star Wars novels. If you're really interested, read and re-read along with me. If you're only moderately interested, just read some, or discuss off of what you know or remember. I've started at the very beginning, with Darth Bane: Path of Destruction. I have a feeling none of you own it, either . . . there should be a copy kicking around at your local library. Go get it. We'll have fun.

Posted by Jared at 04:48 PM | TrackBack

November 18, 2006

The Troubling Redemption of Wise Blood

Reading Flannery O'Connor's stories is exhilarating. Writing about the experience is intimidating. Wise Blood was O'Connor's first novel. It took her five years to write (and me five months to read, although it is rather short). With any luck, I'll have finished a post on it in less than five weeks. O'Connor wrote slowly and with an eye to perfection. She edited and rewrote obsessively. When Wise Blood was almost complete, she suffered her first attack of lupus. This was 10 years after the same condition had killed her father, and 13 years before it killed her.

Wise Blood is the story of Hazel Motes, O'Connor's original "Christ-haunted" Southern man. Haze is a veteran returning home to Georgia after serving in World War II. We meet him on the train to Taulkinham, where he is travelling after discovering his old home abandoned and his family gone. People continually mistake him for a preacher, dressed as he is in a distinctive blue suit and black hat.

This infuriates him. His grandfather was a travelling preacher and Motes has come to the conclusion that the only way to escape from Christ (who he sees as a sort of bogey man) is to escape from sin, and the only way to escape from sin is to have no soul. This is his goal. Nevertheless, he still finds himself pursued in dreams by a "ragged figure who moves from tree to tree" through the back of his mind. He still carries his Bible with him, hidden beneath all of his other belongings where he won't have to see or touch it.

Arriving in Taulkinham, Haze embarks on a rather peculiar spiritual journey. He doesn't need a job (he lives quite well off the government), so at first he wanders aimlessly. Eventually he meets Asa Hawks, a blind street preacher, and his virginal daughter, Sabbath Lily, neither of whom are what they seem to be. He also meets (and cannot rid himself of) Enoch Emory, a stupid, lonely lump of a teenage boy, abandoned by his father, who supports himself by working as a guard at the local zoo.

Enoch is a creature of impulse and an archetypal innocent. Left to his own devices, he behaves as the mood takes him. But every now and then his daddy's "wise blood" takes over, directing Enoch's actions toward some greater purpose that Enoch can seldom see the end of. He is strangely drawn to an assortment of the city's attractions, visiting many of them daily in between stops motivated by his carnal and easily distracted nature. The daily rounds might include visits to the gorilla cage at the zoo, the women who frequent the public pool, a man hawking potato peelers on a street corner, and especially a mysterious building in an isolated section of the park with the enigmatic word "MVSEVM" carved into it.

Enoch is fascinated and disturbed by this building, and especially by the weird, shrivelled figure displayed inside. The card near the figure informs him that this was once a man very much like Enoch himself before some "A-rabs" did this to him. Enoch knows this figure is somehow terribly important, and he is burdened with the need to show it to someone else. He simply doesn't know who.

Enoch latches onto Hazel Motes from the moment he meets him, seeking him out at every opportunity despite the other man's obvious attempts to avoid Enoch. He takes him to see the mummy in the museum, and convinces Haze to visit the local whorehouse with him. Haze, meanwhile, has taken to trailing Asa Hawks. He has decided to seduce Sabbath Lily, but unbeknownst to him, Hawks is encouraging Lily to seduce Haze in an effort to rid himself of her. Hawks is not really blind at all, and he is certainly not a Christian. He is a petty charlatan who ekes out a living off of his false persona.

Haze's suspicions of this, his desire to somehow compete with Hawks, and his desperate efforts to rid himself of the haunting feeling of being pursued by Jesus Christ, lead him to buy a car and set up the "Church Without Christ" where "the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way." He begins passionately preaching his new doctrine of non-salvation outside movie theaters (where he can draw the largest crowds after a show lets out).

After several weeks, the only disciple he manages to attract is Hoover Shoats (or Onnie Jay Holy, as he calls himself at first). Shoats is nothing but a common shyster who wants to manipulate Haze's message in order to turn a profit. Motes, of course, is deadly serious about his message, and turns Shoats away. But soon, Shoats has found a Hazel Motes lookalike, Solace Layfield, (who even wears blue suits and a black hat), a "false prophet." Shoats sets up shop nearby under the label "The Holy Church of Jesus Christ Without Christ," where you can believe whatever you want according to your own interpretation of the Bible.

Meanwhile, Enoch can't stop thinking about Haze's statement the his church needs "a new jesus." Eventually he sneaks into the museum, steals the mummy, and delivers it to Haze and Sabbath Lily (who has moved in after Hawks left town). Enoch then proceeds (in an intensely comical sequence) to follow a man in a gorilla suit around town as he makes appearances in front of movie theaters, shaking hands as part of a film promotion. Enoch finally slips into the back of the truck and beats up the actor in the suit on the way out of town, donning the gorilla outfit himself. He approaches a young couple in the woods, hand extended, and they flee in terror. We leave Enoch alone and dejected, head bowed, in a gorilla suit.

Haze, when he sees the "new jesus," grabs it, dashes it against a wall, and throws it violently out the window as it crumbles into dust. That night, he follows Layfield home from his preaching endeavors and runs his car off the road. He commands Layfield to take off the blue suit, but before he can finish, Haze runs him over. The next day he sets out in his car for another town. Before long, though, he is pulled over by a policeman, who instructs him to step out of his vehicle before pushing it off a cliff where it is dashed to smithereens. Hazel has no choice but to return to town.

Before long, he blinds himself with lime and spends his days walking around with rocks in his shoes and his nights trying to sleep with barbed wire wrapped around his chest. When his landlady eventually tries to marry him some months later (unable to shake the feeling that he knows something important that she doesn't), he takes off and is discovered in a ditch by the police. They return him to his home and he dies on the way. No one notices. His final words are, "I want to go on where I'm going." The novel ends as the landlady converses with his corpse as it lies on the bed, trying with all her power to discover what has been put over on her. What is it that Hazel Motes has that she doesn't?

This is an extremely difficult novel, widely misunderstood upon its initial release in 1952. Stories of redemption in the O'Connor style (see The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) tend to shock and distance the audiences that should find their message most appealing, and to be misinterpreted by everyone else. Ultimately it boils down to Hazel Motes' inability to escape from God's grace. As O'Connor herself said of those who had come at the book the wrong way:

"For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind. For the author, Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to."

There are some definite and obvious parallels between Haze's journey of faith and the Apostle Paul's. Haze begins by actively persecuting Christ and his Church. He sets off for another town to continue his work and has an important experience before ending up blind but spiritually enlightened. The most troubling part for me was in his actions after he blinds himself: the penance. Haze still feels himself indebted to Christ and he is determined to pay that debt (as if he could). I found it difficult to pinpoint what level his spiritual renewal had reached by the time he died.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the difference between the novel and O'Connor's short stories. Most of the short stories lead their characters along in sin or stubborness until a (usually violent) event strips away the scales from their eyes and they experience an epiphany which is usually very painful for them. The story generally ends immediately thereafter, with the character bathed (either joyously or despairingly) in the light of their redemption.

The first problem with Wise Blood was my attempt to pinpoint the epiphany. Was it the murder of Solace Layfield? The destruction of the new jesus? The wrecking of the car? Any of these seem like good candidates, but in the end I think I am wrong by attempting to pick just one. Furthermore, the novel carries on much longer past the arrival at grace and redemption than a short story would (or could).

When a short story ends, it is easy to assume that the main character is a new person whose spiritual struggles are more or less over (particularly if they are dead, which they often are). In Wise Blood, Haze is still working things out right up until the moment he dies, and we no longer have the benefit even of watching from his perspective, as this entire section of the novel is told from the point of view of the landlady.

The power of O'Connor's vision of modern man's struggle against his own salvation in Wise Blood has continued to grow on me in the days since I finished it. It's no wonder people immediately realized upon the novel's release that this was something entirely new and noteworthy. Now, over 50 years later, it continues to baffle, challenge, and convict its readers . . . at least, it did this reader.

Posted by Jared at 11:23 AM | TrackBack

November 15, 2006



From the far star points of his pinned extremities,
cold inched in--black ice and blood ink--
till the hung flesh was empty. Lonely in that void
even for pain, he missed his splintered feet,
the human stare buried in his face.
He ached for two hands made of meat
he could reach to the end of.
In the corpse's core, the stone fist of his heart

began to bang on the stiff chest's door,
and breath spilled back into that battered shape. Now
it's your limbs he longs to flow into
from the sunflower center in your chest
outward--as warm water
shatters at birth, rivering every way.

--Mary Karr, Sinners Welcome

Posted by Jared at 11:11 AM | TrackBack

October 02, 2006

Literature and the Libido of the Lifelong Learner

As I was mulling over my recent reading last week, I bethought me of an interesting trend in the way a particular type of character is often portrayed which struck me as being worth a little extra thought. Not worthy of a major paper, perhaps, but more of a journal of sorts.

I've been reading some Nabokov lately, mostly during my break at work. I'm working on the third of his novels that I've picked up, and I've begun to notice a bit of a recurring theme which called to mind another of my favorite authors: Mervyn Peake.

I've written both frequently and at great length about the first Nabokov novel I read, Lolita, since I first encountered her a few years ago (most notably here). I'm not particularly interested in her right now, but in her revolting and sympathetic immortalizer, Humbert Humbert.

HH's career path is, essentially, "intellectual academic." He is a brilliant writer who falls back on teaching university courses when the creative well runs dry . . . or when it is too consumed with "extracurriculars" to be of any other use. By all accounts (well . . . at least, by his own account), Humbert is extremely smart, well-read, widely-traveled, a man of refined artistic tastes and delicate sensibilities, articulate, knowledgeable . . . and a pedophile and sexual predator.

He is not particularly ashamed of it (at least, for most of the novel), wandering easily into detailed descriptions of the exact numeric specifications that make up his tastes (age, build, size, personality, disposition, and so forth). His character seems to flow quite naturally from brilliant into deviant, with no marked contrast between these aspects of his personality.

The second Nabokov I picked up, fairly recently, is the lightly comical Pnin. A more different book from Lolita can hardly be said to exist. Timofey Pnin is the charming, bumbling antithesis of Humbert Humbert. He teaches a few extremely unpopular Russian courses, is widely lampooned by students and fellow faculty alike, and maintains his position at the University only through the benevolence of the head of the German department (under whose jurisdiction he somehow falls).

His English is abominable, his skill in the classroom dubious, and his skills outside the classroom virtually nonexistent. Timofey is extremely kindhearted, but intolerably timid and fussy (very like Mr. Norrell, in fact, although that is neither here nor there). He is also (of course) quite, quite impotent (sexually and in most other respects). He was married, decades earlier, to a mediocre poet named Liza who abandoned him for a mediocre psychologist (a profession which Nabokov particularly despised).

She returns, months later, pregnant and feigning reconciliation just long enough for the hapless Timofey to pay her passage to America, then revealing that she will be living there with the father of her child. Years later, she visits Timofey again to gouge money out of him for her son's education. She has him wrapped tightly around her little finger, but their relationship brings him nothing but pain in return. His subservient role in their relationship is quite possibly at the core of his lack of success and happiness.

And then, finally, there is Pale Fire . . . a very odd and interesting work indeed. I can't even pretend to come up with a brief and coherent summary of the book on my own, so I'll swipe one:

John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

Charles Kinbote aka (maybe) Charles Xavier aka King Charles II is an even more difficult character to get at than Humbert Humbert. (Side note, in case you were wondering: Pale Fire (1962) came out the year before the first X-Men comic book (1963). I have no idea if Professor X's name owes anything to this book. I doubt it, but it does seem like a rather astounding coincidence.)

Anyway, putting aside all questions of whether Kinbote even exists, whether he is insane, whether he is hallucinatory, schizophrenic, and paranoid, whether the poet he idolizes exists, and so on . . . Putting all of that aside and taking Kinbote at face value (dangerous from a Nabokovian first-person at the best of times), what do we have?

An extremely obsessive academic (Professor of literature, actually); a compulsive liar; unbearably arrogant, sneeringly superior, pretentious (but then, he might be royalty, after all); and an unabashed sodomite to the most hedonistic degree, frequently indulging in oily digressions to drool over the lithe form of some young buck.

Humbert is certainly a slimier character than Kinbote, but Kinbote lacks Humbert's charisma. Poor Pnin is just pathetically pitiable.

In Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, there are a plethora of extra-special characters, but few are as special as the castle's professorial staff: Bellgrove, Cutflower, Perch-Prism, Opus Fluke, Throd, Shred, Shrivell, Splint, Spiregrain Flannelcat, and the rest. One of the most memorable and entertaining sequences in the novel (although it has little or nothing to do with any of the central plot threads) takes place when Irma Prunesquallor, Gormenghast's only eligible spinster, invites all of the professors to a party with the intention of marrying one of them.

The professors are immediately thrown far outside of their comfort zones at the prospect of encountering even one member of the opposite sex. No one knows quite how to react, but they all agree to go. The opening minutes of the party are excruciating, but it takes the reaction of one in particular to really freeze things over:

And it was then, at her third convulsive stride in the headmaster's direction that something happened which was not only embarassing but heart-rending in its simplicity, for a hoarse cry, out-topping the general cacophony, silenced the room and brought Irma to a standstill.

As every head was turned in the direction of the sound a movement became apparent in the same quarter where, from a group of professors, something appeared to be making its way toward its rigid hostess. Its face was flushed and its gestures so convulsive that it was not easy to realize that it was Professor Throd.

On sighting Irma, he had deserted his companions Splint and Spiregrain, and on obtaining a better view of his hostess had suffered a sensation that was in every way too violent, too fundamental, too electric for his small brain and body. A million volts ran through him, a million volts of stark infatuation.

He had seen no woman for thirty-seven years. He gulped her through his eyes as at some green oasis the thirst-tormented nomad gulps the wellhead. Unable to remember any female face, he took Irma's strange proportions and the cast of her features to be characteristic of femininity. And so, his conscious mind blotted out by the intensity of his reaction, he committed the unforgivable crime. He made his feelings public. He lost control. The blood rushed to his head; he cried out hoarsely, and then, little knowing what he was doing, he stumbled forwards, elbowing his colleagues from his path, and fell upon his knees before the lady, and finally, as though in a paroxysm, he collapsed upon his face, his arms and legs spread-eagled like a starfish.

While all of Throd's colleaugues and Dr. Prunesquallor gather around him an academic fascination, Headmaster Bellgrove moves in on Irma and whisks her out to the garden to woo her off her feet. Their dialogue is straight out of a third-rate melodrama . . . Naturally, since that is the closest either of them has ever been to genuine romance. In the midst of this, Prunesquallor manages to pull Throd out of his catatonic state and the professor makes a most undignified exit, streaking naked out the window, through the garden and over the wall, never to be seen again.

The point of all this (which I've been such a very long time getting to, I admit) is that the old "nerd" stereotypes from high school and beyond are carried one step further in literary circles. Academics don't get girls, either because they don't want them or because they simply can't. I found it very interesting that, over and over, I see academics in literature imbued with a somehow deviant or defective version of what is commonly viewed as the "normal" sex drive. I'm not entirely certain why this is, but it happens a lot.

A few other examples of this which come to mind: Cecil Vyse (A Room With a View), Frederick Chasuble (The Importance of Being Earnest), Quentine Compson (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom). With a bit of reaching or speculation, I could spin out a couple dozen more candidates as well. Any thoughts (if you're still here)? Perhaps Wilson could ask that History of Sexuality chick what she thinks . . .

Posted by Jared at 04:24 PM | TrackBack

September 15, 2006

A Fantasy Masterpiece of British Proportions

Every so often a book comes along that just blows me away simply because it does something that I've never seen before, and does it well. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke is just such a book. The first title by this author, it is a massive tome nearly 800 pages long. The story juggles an enormous but memorable cast of multi-dimensional characters and dazzlingly interweaves a dozen intriguing plot threads.

The genre, if it must be defined, is historical fantasy. The novel begins in England in 1806. Magic, once an everyday part of English life and culture, has (to all appearances) disappeared from England entirely. Modern-day magicians are gentleman-scholars who study and write books about magic and its history, but who do not possess any actual books of magic, and do not under any circumstances practice it.

Two members of the The Learned Society of York Magicians, Mr. Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot, are determined to discover why magic has fallen out of use. Their investigations bring to light the fussy, reclusive bookworm Gilbert Norrell, owner of the largest magical library in history (which no one knew existed) and the only practicing magician England has seen in over a hundred years. Mr. Norrell bursts spectacularly on the national scene when he brings the statues of York Cathedral to life before proceeding on to London to offer his services to the government in the ongoing Napoleonic Wars.

Before long a second practical magician emerges from the woodwork to become Mr. Norrell's apprentice. He is Jonathan Strange, a fiery, intelligent young man who is everything Norrell is not. Where Norrell is cautious and fearful, Strange is brave and impatient. Where Norrell's magic comes only from his books, Strange has an uncanny grasp of the basis of magical theory, and can improvise many of his own spells. And where Norrell is outspoken in his loathing for all things connected with fairy magic, Strange finds himself strangely drawn to fairy lore.

In particular, Strange is fascinated by anything to do with John Uskglass, a human child raised by fairies who emerged from Faerie to become the greatest magician in history. Uskglass established the very foundations of English magic and went on to rule northern England for 300 years during the High Middle Ages before mysteriously disappearing with the promise to one day return and reclaim his throne.

Of course, before long, Strange and Norrell's differing magical philosophies cause relations between the grow increasingly tense, while, unbeknownst to either of them, a unpredictable, sinister force has been awakened and is working mysteriously behind the scenes to ruin both of them.

The novel, however, is far from following the above summary with simply, straightforward storytelling. The entire story is peppered liberally with footnotes containing further fascinating information on the rich and convincing alternate history Clarke has created for England in the form of charming anecdotes, references to magical texts, and explanations of spells and the like.

Clarke draws on a more-than-ample heritage of all things British to create her book. Many of her characters could easily be the beloved creations of Austen, Dickens. Her humor is as dry and hilarious as anything by Shaw or Wilde. Her ability to create new worlds and the originality of her fantasy bring to mind the best of Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling. Her story is as historically grounded and engaging as anything by O'Brian (to name something set in the same period). Her social commentary is as witty, appealing, and incisive as Forster's. Her alternate history and fairy lore are drawn from a vast melting pot of some of the best elements of British folklore and fairy tales, the Arthur legends, and a few bon mots from Shakespeare and Spenser for extra flavor. Her characters encounter and influence history without severely altering it, heightening the realism, and the major historical players who have important roles in the book include figures like the Duke of Wellington and Lord Byron.

In short, Susanna Clarke has written a unique book and populated and enlivened it with the best and brightest that British culture, history, literature and mythology have to offer. If matters of Britain appeal to you, or you enjoy storytelling that pulls you inside another world where you can happily spend hours on end, you should probably give Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a try. If you love both, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

And now I should really end this particular review, lest I succumb to the overpowering temptation to quote long passages. Still, perhaps just one minor quote wouldn't hurt:

A lovely young Italian girl passed by. Byron tilted his head to a very odd angle, half-closed his eyes and composed his features to suggest that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion. Dr. Greysteel could only suppose that he was treating the young woman to the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression.

Now, go forth. Read.

Posted by Jared at 02:35 PM | TrackBack

July 21, 2006

The Joy of Four Plays

(This title the product of a snicker-filled brainstorming session with Randy.)

Rachel and I, along with the Scholls, Randy, and Barbour . . . and our good friend Wilson (who drove up from Austin especially for the occasion) did the Texas Shakespeare Festival last weekend. A play Friday evening, two plays on Saturday, and a play on Sunday afternoon . . . a veritable stage marathon of epic proportions. The breakdown:

Friday evening: Coriolanus

This is one of two little-read, little-performed Shakespeare plays put on by the TSF this year. He took his plot from Plutarch's Lives. The "hero" of the story (one of the least sympathetic I've encountered in Shakespeare) is a Roman general of unmatched skill on the battlefield, and unmatched disgust for the common man.

The first wins him great renown and a chance to be made consul. The second not only loses him his shot at being consul, but gets him banished from Rome, whereupon he goes straight to his worst enemy, Aufidius, the leader of the barbaric Volscians, and offers to lead his armies against Rome.

This he also fails to do when his mother comes to beg that he turn back, and for his failure, he is slain by the Volscians. The end. Coriolanus is such a moron that I found him difficult to sympathize with, but the performances were largely quite good, and the play certainly had its moments.

Saturday afternoon: The School for Husbands

One of two non-Shakespeare plays performed at the TSF, this one was written by Moliere. It was probably the most enjoyable of the four, and the best in terms of both material and execution. It was translated from the original French (obviously) and the translator largely preserved the characters' speech in rhyming couplets . . . amusing or painful, take your pick. I enjoyed it despite bad Alexander Pope flashbacks.

It is a farcical piece about two brothers who are the guardians of two sisters. Each brother raises one of the sisters as he sees fit with the intention of one day marrying them. The elder indulges his ward, allowing her to stay out late, attend balls, and shop for fashionable clothing, hoping to win her love through trust and respect. The younger keeps his ward under lock and key, never allowing her out of his sight, hoping to preserve her (loving or otherwise) by ensuring that she has no opportunity to cuckold him.

Of course, the younger brother's ward cleverly schemes and connives to trick him into letting her marry the young man across the street. There was much prancing, posing, witty banter, and slapstick for the enjoyment of all before the final curtain.

Perhaps the funniest moment of the weekend, though, was entirely unplanned. Near the end, the younger brother's mustache began to peel off, and when (in a moment of great distress) he reached up to stroke it while speaking, it came away in his hand. Staying in character, he stared at it for a moment, wide-eyed, then agitatedly plucked off his goatee as well, stared at it, then shoved it at a silent character whose only purpose was to hold a lantern saying, "Oh, take this!" and went right on. When he came out to take a bow (still sans facial hair) he smiled slightly and stroked his bare upper lip, much to our amusement.

Saturday night: Pericles, Prince of Tyre

The second Shakespeare play . . . and what a sprawling, fractured, out-of-control Arabian Nights piece it is. It begins promisingly, with Pericles arriving in a foreign land to answer a riddle posed by the king. If he gets the answer right, he gets the king's daughter (who is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter), but if he gets it wrong, he must be put to death.

The answer to the riddle happens to be the fact that the father and daughter are committing incest, and when Pericles figures it out, he naturally wants nothing to do with her. The king, enraged that his secret has been discovered, wants Pericles dead (turns out it was a lose-lose situation) and he must flee across the Mediterranean, hopping from port to port, pursued by assassins.

All sorts of wild things start happening at this point . . . there are multiple shipwrecks, the wicked king and his daughter are struck by lightning, Pericles gets married and fathers a daughter, but loses both wife and child. The wife is presumed dead, but is "resurrected" by a wise doctor (only mostly dead) and becomes a priestess in the temple of Diana. The daughter, left in the care of the king and queen of Tarsus, is nearly killed, but is suddenly rescued by pirates . . . who sell her to a brothel. But she isn't violated because every man who comes to see her is completely charmed by her virtue and goes away to follow the straight and narrow.

Time passes in great and illogical leaps, and the hapless Pericles is eventually reunited with his daughter. Then, just when it seems like the play might go on forever without resolution, Diana appears to Pericles in a dream and directs him to his wife.

Not the best of plays, for sure, but it also had its moments. Most of these moments came when the actors stopped playing the material straight and began to ham it up a bit . . . but such moments were far too few and far between, and the performance suffered for it.

Sunday afternoon: Harvey

I've always been partial to this play . . . well, particularly to the movie version starring Jimmy Stewart, and so I think my expectations caused my experience with this performance to suffer. Nevertheless, it is a charming play, and I still enjoyed myself thoroughly. The way they played some of the parts revealed a few things within the text that I'd never noticed before in the more strait-laced black and white movie . . . that was fun. Harvey was just generally a nice way to end our TSF experience and enjoy a lazy Sunday afternoon.

I greatly enjoyed the theater-going experience of last weekend, and I shall certainly look forward to the productions next summer . . . Hopefully they'll choose some better Shakespeare while keeping up the quality of the non-Shakespeare selections. In any case, that's all for now. I'm off.

Posted by Jared at 12:14 PM | TrackBack

April 22, 2006

Enter the Holy Grail

The last Arthurian Romance by Chrétien de Troyes, the 12th century poet who is perhaps the most directly responsible for the Arthur legends as we know them today, was "The Story of the Grail." Chrétien was the first author to introduce the Holy Grail into the Arthur stories, and so for the purposes of a historical and literary study of the identifiable authors of Grail legend, it all begins here.

"Here," in this case, refers to the middle of a forest, where a disingenuous rube named Perceval lives with his mother. One day, as he wanders through the woods, he meets some knights, whom he immediately mistakes for God and His angels. He refuses to answer any of their questions, being so focused on asking them things, and finally they tell him how he may become a knight: by journeying to the court of King Arthur. This he eagerly sets out to do, despite his mother's great sorrow (her husband and other two sons were knights, and are now all dead). She has been trying to keep him from knowing anything about knights, but now that he does she tells him everything, gives him what advice she can, and sends him on his way. As he rides off, she falls unconscious behind him, but he fails to notice or care.

To make a long story short (as many of these tales tend to wind aimlessly from episode to unrelated episode), Perceval takes a snide remark from Sir Kay at face value when he arrives at court and immediately sets out to win his spurs as a knight. After many adventures, including the defeat of the red knight and the rescuing of a besieged castle (and the attached damsel), Perceval decides it is time to go get his mother. On his way to find her, he shacks up in the castle of a wounded king who spends his days fishing in the nearby river, and that night at dinner, a strange ritual takes place.

A procession passes by him bearing a sword, a lance, a dish, and a cup (the Grail). Not wishing to appear simple (he's learned a few things during his adventures), he refrains from asking what it's all about and goes to sleep. Waking up the next morning, he finds the entire castle deserted, and he saddles up and leaves, very confused. Not far away, he meets a maiden who informs him that, not only is his mother dead from the grief of his departure, but his failure to ask the question about the Grail procession the night before has doomed the Fisher King to continue in his wounded state, and his lands and peoples will continue to suffer.

Perceval wanders on, encountering Arthur and his court, and vows to never rest until he has relocated the Grail Castle and had a chance to redeem his mistake. At this point he promptly forgets about God for about five years and has many adventures. One day (Good Friday, in fact), he happens to meet a group of ten ladies and three knights, wandering around on foot dressed in penitential garb. They berate him for riding around in armor on such a day and direct him to a nearby hermit. It turns out this hermit is related to both Perceval and the Fisher King, and he brings Perceval back into the church. Perceval takes communion that Easter Sunday.

At this point, Perceval's story is effectively over, and the rest of the poem is meanders along after Gawain with very little direction. The story is incomplete, basically cutting off in mid-sentence, and it is believed that Chrétien died before he could finish it. Three later authors attempted continuations of it (all quite lengthy), but I have my own idea about the unity of the story.

This is the original Arthur/Grail story, and the Grail plays an almost non-existent role in the story. Furthermore, it seems to me that all that is truly important here is Perceval's story of a journey from spiritual darkness and immaturity to salvation and growth. Once he takes communion on Easter Sunday, everything ought to be over.

Consider: Perceval begins in ignorance of where he comes from and where he is going. His mother sends him out into the world with instructions to attend church and seek God, which he ignores (being so caught up in the drive to become a knight). Arriving in the Grail Castle after many adventures, he fails to ask about the procession, which seems to be obviously connected to some sort of Christian ritual.

The sword might be the Word of God. The spear could be symbolic of the lance that pierced the side of Christ. The dish and cup (or Grail) could bear the body and blood of Christ for the communion sacrament. The fact is, we don't know for sure, and neither does Perceval, because he simply doesn't care enough to ask. Perceval has his chance at this point to bring healing to his soul, to the Fisher King, and to the land and its people, but he misses it because he is not particularly interested in spiritual things. As a result of this, he fails to achieve understanding and is excluded from the building that houses the Grail (the church?). Not long after this, he forgets about God entirely for five whole years. Finally, someone explains everything to him and he is able to take communion, which he was not able to do when the dish and grail passed by years before.

One of the most interesting aspects of the story, as mentioned previously, is how minor the role of the Grail is. In the beginning, it would seem, the Grail was not the most central element of the entire story. Somewhere along the way, something seems to have changed all that, but as yet it is not quite clear what.

Posted by Jared at 09:06 PM | TrackBack

January 25, 2006

Adultery, Incest, & Miscegenation! Oh, My!

I just finished Absalom, Absalom! yesterday (yes, it took me quite awhile), and I find that it is the best book about the South that I have yet read. It captures every important facet of Southern history from the Antebellum period to 1910, although putting it that way makes it seem less incredible than it actually is. Also, I think Faulkner is crippling my ability to form short, coherent, and meaningful sentences.

The novel follows Quentin Compson (one of the four narrators in The Sound and the Fury) as he discovers the dark truth behind the story of Colonel Thomas Sutpen, a local legend. The story comes to him in fragments and out of order, from various narrators with varying degrees of reliability: Miss Rosa Coldfield, Sutpen's sister-in-law and almost-wife, who has hated him with a burning passion for most of her life; Quentin's father, recounting information he has heard from his own father, one of the few men who ever got close to Sutpen; and, finally, from a figure straight out of the legend itself, come back to haunt Sutpen's old plantation mansion.

We hear the story first as Quentin hears it, told, as I said, out of order, in bits and pieces, with many details (both major and minor) completely wrong. Many portions are repeated from different angles. Then, Quentin returns to college in Massachusetts where he stays up late one freezing night with his Canadian roommate, Shreve, and attempts to piece together the details he has collected to tell the true story of Colonel Sutpen, which becomes representative of the true story of the entire South.

Sutpen grows up poor in the western part of Virginia which will eventually break off from the rest of the state when the Civil War begins. This is the backcountry, where all men are created equal and individualism is king. However, when Sutpen's mother dies the rest of his family slowly slips back towards the Virginia coastland, eventually settling on a large plantation where his father assumes a servile position beneath the local cavalier.

One day, Sutpen is sent to deliver a message to the house, and finds himself turned away from the front door by a negro servant. The next day he runs away to Haiti, determined to somehow build himself up to a position equal to that of the plantation owner. In Haiti he succeeds in making his fortune, and marries a woman who bears him a son. His plan seems to be well on track. Then, he makes a shocking discovery. His wife is an octoroon (one-eighth black), thus making his son also of African descent. This will never do. Sutpen sets them up for life in New Orleans and abandons them, travelling to Mississippi.

He comes rolling in with a wagonload of "wild negroes," tricks local Indians out of 100 miles of pristine land, and builds an enormous mansion on it with the help of a French architect that he nabbed from New Orleans. In the meantime, he fathers a daughter, Clytie, with one of the few black women in his bunch. Once his plantation is up and running, he finds himself a wife among the locals: Ellen Coldfield (sister of Rosa). Over the course of the next few years, he has a son, Henry, and a daughter, Judith.

They grow up, Henry grows to college, and meets Charles Bon (who is Sutpen's first son, unbeknownst to Henry). Henry brings him home and he becomes engaged to Judith. Bon is prepared to simply walk away from this engagement, and the family, at any time if Sutpen will merely acknowledge their relationship, but instead, Stupen freaks out which causes Henry to freak out and leave with Bon, giving up his inheritance.

The Civil War happens, and Sutpen, Henry, and Bon all get caught up in it, leaving everything else on hold for four years. Henry and Bon return to the Sutpen home after the war is over and Henry shoots Bon at the front gate, delivering this news to his sister as she is putting the finishing touches on her wedding dress, and then disappearing forever. Ellen Coldfield is dead by this point, and Rosa moves out to the plantation. Colonel Sutpen returns home from the war and proposes to Rosa, who accepts. Then, Sutpen proposes that they perform a "test-run" before they get married, and if Rosa has a son, they will go ahead with the wedding. She is carried back to town on a wave of righteous indignation and never speaks to him again.

Sutpen opens a small store on his property, with the help of Wash Jones (a white trash squatter) in order to stay afloat. He eventually seduces Wash's 15-year old granddaughter and fathers a daughter with her. When he discovers that she has not borne a son, he prepares to abandon her, but is murdered by Wash, who then also murders his granddaughter and her new baby before being killed by a posse.

Years pass, and Clytie fetches Bon's son (child of an octoroon mistress, much like Sutpen's) from New Orleans. The child, in a fit of rebellion against his white blood, marries a poor black woman, who bears him a mentally-retarded son. They both die, and Clytie and the son, Jim Bond (great-grandson of Sutpen), take care of what little is left of Sutpen's enormous plantation alone. Finally, a figure from the past returns to the mansion to die, and is discovered by Rosa Coldfield and Quentin Compson. Clytie sets the mansion on fire and dies in the blaze. The only Sutpen left standing is Jim Bond, who continues to haunt the ruins of the mansion indefinitely, wailing and shrieking over Clytie's death.

There is a great deal that could be said about this book, obviously, as it functions on quite a number of different levels simultaneously. Read literally, it is full of questions regarding the nature of memory and history, and the style of Faulkner's prose (the confused, jumbled ruminations and speculations of biased narrators regarding long-gone events) is a theme all by itself. There is the obvious link to the biblical story from which the title of the book is drawn. Many of Sutpen's problems result from his children, both legitimate and illegitimate, and his efforts to sire a suitable heir to what he has created.

Most fascinating to me is the way in which the entire story serves as a metaphorical representation of the South's dark past. I read that Faulkner's original title for the book was "Dark House," a reference both to Sutpen's eerie, foreboding mansion and to the South itself. Just like Sutpen, the Old South had not reconciled its white sons with its black ones, and just like Sutpen's house, it came to ruin. Ultimately, Henry kills his brother not because Bon keeps a black mistress, nor even to save his sister from incest, but because a marriage between Bon and Judith would be miscegenation. This is a horror that no white person in the South will abide.

The other aspect of the story that fascinated me was the role played by Quentin. Quentin is not a Sutpen at all, but it falls to him, as a white child of the South, to receive this story and to try and make sense of it. As the younger generation, this burden of Southern history falls squarely on Quentin's shoulders and he must deal with it as best he can and try to understand why it exists. Late in the novel, as the story of the Sutpens is nearing completion, Shreve and Quentin have a very telling conversation.

"I just want to understand [the South] if I can [. . .] Because it's something my people haven't got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We dont live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves [. . .] and bullets in the dining room and such, to be always reminding us to never forget. What is it? something you live and breathe in like air? a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? a kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman, so that forevermore as long as your childrens' children produce children you wont be anything but a descendant of a long line of colonels killed in Pickett's charge at Manassas?"

"Gettysburg," Quentin said. "You can't understand it. You would have to be born there."

"Would I then?" Quentin did not answer. "Do you understand it?"

"I dont know," Quentin said. "Yes, of course I understand it." They breathed in the darkness. After a moment Quentin said: "I don't know."

The novel ends with Quentin lying in bed, trying unsuccessfully to convince himself that he does not hate the South. Anyone who has read The Sound and the Fury knows that within six months of the end of this novel, Quentin will commit suicide. But, of course, that work was published before this one, and this one is set before that one, so the two do not reference each other at all. No literary criticism that I have perused attempts to draw any connection between the events of Absalom, Absalom and Quentin Compson's suicide.

This makes sense from a literary perspective, considering that the two novels were necessarily composed independently of each other. However, if we think of Quentin as a separate entity, a fully realized character with his own, independent existence, the implications of his suicide, and the reasons behind it, become much more interesting.

But I'm not prepared to go into all of that at this juncture. Suffice to say that I have successfully completed my 3rd Faulkner, and loved it. And I'll be sure to read another . . . y'know, sometime.

Posted by Jared at 11:08 AM | TrackBack

December 13, 2005

Biblical Unity Revealed: The Great Code by Northrop Frye

Our final two weeks in "Reading the Bible as Literature" were devoted to The Great Code by Northrop Frye, the famous literary critic. His book is devoted to an examination of the biblical material from a literary perspective. The title comes from William Blake: "The Bible is the great code of art and literature."

I absolutely loved the book, but almost no one else did. Gallagher was my only fellow Frye fan. The response of others in the class ranged from "I haven't read it" to "I don't understand it" to "This guy is retarded." The first two were almost forgivable . . . the book was not short, nor was it an easy read, but . . . Northrop Frye is a genius. I was astounded by Frye's ability, writing as a secular figure, to achieve such balance and sensitivity to the material in his critique of the Bible. Anyway, in honor of my classmates, here is my explanation of the book (as produced for my final exam in the class):

In The Great Code, Northrop Frye begins by outlining his general purpose in the introduction. He will discuss in his book the idea that the Bible is a literary unity and is the most important book in Western history and culture. He will do this by describing general factors under the headings of Language, Myth, Metaphor, and Typology in Part I. In Part II he will apply these factors more specifically within the Bible, returning backwards through them and giving the book a chiasmic structure.

In Language I, Frye notes that Christianity, unlike either Judaism or Islam, has relied primarily on translations for its religious texts since the very beginning of its history. First there was the Greek Septuagint of the early church, followed by the Latin Vulgate in the Middle Ages. Around the time of the Protestant Reformation, translations in English and Germany gained prominence. And today there is a concerted movement to see the entire Bible translated into every language known to mankind.

In examining, in particular, the language of the Bible, Frye describes the three phases of history posited by Giambattista Vico: the Age of Gods, the Age of Kings, and the Age of Men. He also discusses the difference between langue (or different languages like French, English, and German) and langage (or the common experience of living on earth which gives all languages equivalent terms and the ability to be translated into each other). Frye notes that there is a history of langage which moves through three distinct phases. Vico calls them poetic, heroic (or noble), and vulgar. Frye describes them as hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic. However, for most of the chapter, he refers to them as metaphor, metonymy, and descriptive.

In the metaphorical phase of language, words carry a great deal of power with them, for they invoke their objects when they are used. A word is the object which it refers to, and all concepts (even those we might consider abstract today) are concrete and real. Thus we see in the Bible how God speaks and Creation begins, how Jepthah’s vow must be kept, how the Hebrew people never say or write out the name of God, etc. At the center of the metaphorical phase is the concept of the “god” of nature and the world. A sentient personality is given to virtually everything, and from this we have a sun-god, rain-god, war-god, and so on.

In the metonymic phase of language, words shift from a state of “this is that” to a state of “this is put for that.” The language becomes capable of sustaining abstract concepts, and the idea of a transcendent “God” (who is outside of and over all things) moves to the center of the language. In metonymy, what was once literal is now much more poetic in nature.

In the descriptive phase of language, words arise out of the need to describe that which we see before us. In this phase, “God” no longer has any linguistic function because the concept cannot be sensed physically or in any way tested or measured empirically. Therefore, in the third phase of language God is said to be dead. However, Frye points out that God “may not be so much dead as entombed in a dead language.”

Once he has described these three phases, Frye states that the Bible does not fall squarely into any of them. The Bible contains metaphorical language, metonymic concepts, and descriptive writing, but it is actually something else altogether. The Bible makes use of a kind of rhetorical oratory which claims to bring revelation from a time outside of time. The Bible, then, is what Frye calls kerygma, or proclaiming rhetoric. Kerygma, he says, is the vehicle of the Bible’s revelation. In turn, the linguistic vehicle of kerygma is myth.

Myth, Frye says (in Myth I), serves to “draw a circumference around a human community.” Myth is communicated in story form, and it delineates the things which a society needs to know about itself. Myth is differentiated from other forms of story in two ways. First, it is part of a larger canon, or a Mythology. Second, it serves to set a particular society or culture apart from all others by forming the basis of a cultural history.

There are two types of history: Weltgeschichte and Heilsgeschichte. Weltgeschichte is authentic, accurate history which recounts events as they actually happened. Heilsgeschichte explains the importance of and meaning behind those historical events. The Bible, Frye asserts, is the latter type of history, and accurate history is usually secondary (and even irrelevant) to the biblical message. The myth of the Bible serves to redeem history by explaining its purpose and meaning.

In Metaphor I, Frye explains that the Bible, in accomplishing the construction of a mythology, uses a great deal of poetic imagery, despite the absence of a literary purpose as such. The reason for that is because of the value a verbal structure has in constructing a corresponding material structure. Frye notes that, when any verbal structure of words is created, it artificially links disparate material elements into a material structure. These material elements are only a minute part of all material reality, and may be totally unrelated without the presence of the linking verbal structure.

The purpose of this sort of structuralization in the Bible is to draw together the various events of the past in the construction of a unified, purposeful history. The Bible at its core consists of a universalized structure which remains open to a variety of theological interpretations. The history of the Bible presents a natural cycle of events which recurs over time, moving us towards a final denouement, or judgment, in which all creatures are divided between paradise and hell. Although Frye states that the Bible cannot be reduced to a single “metaphor cluster,” the guiding purpose throughout this historical movement is embodied in the word of God. The word of God can refer to both the Bible itself and to Jesus Christ.

In Typology I, Frye reveals that the Bible is able to carry its purpose (to account for the forces guiding all of human history) because it possesses a typology. A typology is essentially a theory of historical process which holds that there is a meaning and a purpose behind all events which transpire. Every event which occurs is a type, pointing to some event in the future which will remain clouded and unknowable until it actually takes place, thus revealing both itself and the manner in which it was concealed in the preceding event. This future event is the antitype of the type that came before.

Frye shows that the Bible consists of Old Testament and New Testament, which are type and antitype of each other, forming a “double mirror” in which each reflects the other but not the world outside. However, not only are the Old and New Testaments type and antitype, but every event in the Bible is in some way the type of what is to come and the antitype of what has already been. In this way, Frye believes, the Bible moves inexorably from beginning to end, carrying a single purpose forward throughout.

In Typology II, Frye discusses the seven specific “Phases of Revelation” which make up the totality of the Bible: five in the Old Testament, two in the New Testament. These phases in order are: Creation, Revolution (the Exodus), Law, Wisdom, Prophecy, Gospel, and Apocalypse. Each of the seven is, as previously discussed, the type of the phase after it and the antitype of the phase before it. Frye carries the reader through each of these phases, describing them and their links with each other. These descriptions serve largely as review material for anyone who possesses previous familiarity with the text.

In Metaphor II, Frye discusses the unity of biblical images. Imagery in the Bible is of two kinds: either Apocalyptic (good), or Demonic (evil). Each of these kinds is further divided, Apocalyptic into Group and Individual, and Demonic into Manifest and Parody. Parody only exists within the Demonic type because everything within Parody is a perversion of something good. Good does not pervert evil, so there is no Apocalyptic Parody. Parody itself is further divided into Group and Individual.

Once the images have been placed beneath one of the above headings, they are further divided into one of seven categories: Divine, Angelic (or Spiritual), Paradisal, Human, Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral. All biblical imagery fits somehow into this scheme, presenting the reader with a unified picture of the world where everything is part of the positive picture or the negative picture, all the way from the divine down to inanimate objects on earth.

In Myth II, Frye discusses the unity of the biblical narrative. He describes the entirety of the Bible as a rising and falling cycle of high points and low points tracing their way throughout history towards a final, ultimate high point. The narrative goes something like this: Garden of Eden, Sin/Wilderness/Cain’s City/Ur, Promised Land I (Pastoral), Sea/Wilderness/Pharaoh, Promised Land II (Agrarian), Philistines, etc., Jerusalem/Zion, Captivity/Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar, Rebuilt Temple, Antiochus Epiphanes, Purified Temple (Maccabees), Rome/Nero, Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom.

Within this narrative, Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Antiochus, and Nero are all spiritually the same oppressor, and Egypt, Babylon, and Rome are the same place. Furthermore, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, Zion, and Jesus’ Spiritual Kingdom are all metaphors for the same place, and Moses, David, Joshua, etc. are all pointing towards the coming Messiah.

In Language II, Frye first addresses the question of the biblical canon which has formed this unity of imagery and narrative that he has just discussed. He believes that it has been formed around the book of Deuteronomy. The other books in the Pentateuch were re-written to conform to it. Earlier prophecy was interpreted according to it. Histories were written in light of it. And, finally, the New Testament books were selected according to their conformity with, and illustration of, Deuteronomy 6:5.

While some might see the question of authorship as integral to the selection of the canon, Frye states that this is not the case. In fact, authorship and the question of inspiration are fairly irrelevant. If inspiration is to be believed, then we must also believe in the inspiration of editors, translators, compilers, and so forth.

As for authorship, Frye states that the Bible was largely composed during a transitional phase between oral tradition (wherein the author is anonymous) and writing tradition (as in modern times, where the author is named). In this transitional phrase we have a great deal of pseudonymous writing, in which the actual authors will attach the name of some famous or important person in order to show the legitimacy of their writings. Frye supplies us with the example of II Peter.

Frye further describes the unity of the Bible as being largely built out of innumerable smaller units, or kernels. Examples of these include the proverbs or aphorisms of Wisdom literature, the oracles of Prophecy, the commandments of the Torah, and the pericope of the Gospels.

Proceeding forward, he discusses the importance of the Bible as a piece of objective (rather than subjective) art. Objective art by Frye’s reckoning consists of works which form an integral part of a society’s cultural history. In our case, this might mean such things as the writing of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, of course, the Bible.

Objective art, he states, has achieved “resonance” with its audience. In other words, particular phrases have achieved their own power and significance within a culture, even when separated entirely from their context within the original text. The example he gives is the phrase “Grapes of Wrath” from Isaiah 63, which has become a famous line in a culturally significant song as well as the title of an important piece of literature.

Next he describes Dante’s ideas of finding multiple meanings within a single passage. Dante classifies these meanings as: Literal, Allegorical, Moral, and Anagogical. Literal is the obvious meaning of the actual words. Allegorical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our salvation from a fallen state. Moral is how the words form a picture or symbol of our movement from a sinful to a virtuous life. And Anagogical is how the words form a picture or symbol of our glorification from base, human, earth-bound existence to an existence in the divine presence of God. Frye is careful to note that these varying meanings do not conflict with each other, but rather operate on various levels and are all, in some sense, true.

There are two cautionary notes which Frye provides to the application of Dante’s theory of polysemous meaning, however. First, it assumes the validity of a single worldview through which we interpret (in Dante’s case, Medieval Catholic Christianity). Second, it assumes that the words themselves are not important, but rather some higher meaning which exists behind the words.

However, Frye states that what Dante is trying to accomplish in the search for polysemous (but unified) meaning in a religious or spiritual sense is very near to what Frye is advocating in the application of polysemous (but unified) interpretation in a literary sense. He states that this approach is the most useful in any consideration of the Bible as literature. It must be considered as a unity of narrative and imagery, a product of composition which sought to account for a purpose behind history, and a self-contained work of proclaimed revelation in order to allow for the most useful study of its text in literary terms.

I found that Frye had a great deal of value to communicate in The Great Code. His approach to the Bible was both profound and meaningful. At times his writing could be quite difficult to follow and understand, yet this was not a failing of that writing, for once I understood what it was communicating I could think of no better way to explain whatever he was trying to say. In other words, I found the reading of the book to be a very rewarding and stretching experience. Frye challenged my beliefs without belittling, demeaning, or dismissing them, and I think I came away from the book ultimately strengthened in those beliefs.

Nevertheless, it is a marvel to me that a man with Frye’s obviously intimidating intelligence should be capable of conducting so thorough and knowledgeable a study of the meaning and value of the biblical text without himself believing in the truths espoused within that text. There were times in The Great Code where I felt that he was very close to believing just that, times when he seemed puzzled because something did not quite add up between his own assumptions and the actual situation he found, yet somehow he does not seem to have been capable of making that last leap to faith.

Even towards the end of the book when he is describing the nature of faith so well, there does not seem to be the least spark of any such knowledge or sentiments on his part. This both astounds and saddens me. However, Frye’s lack of faith in the Bible does not in any way affect the importance of what he has to say about it in his book. The Great Code was of considerable value to me in giving me perspective on what exactly the Bible is that I had never before heard or considered on my own.

Posted by Jared at 07:51 PM | TrackBack

One Literary Theory to Rule Them All

As anyone could easily tell from the preceding entries, I've had a lot of fun this semester playing around with different perspectives and ways of looking at literature. But through it all I must confess the slightest shade of discomfort. All of the critical theories to which we were exposed were alright in their way, but none of them worked perfectly for me. In particular, I was bothered by the fact that I could not fit my own critical efforts in the past into any of the categories which I was being taught.

I despise New Criticism, as I've mentioned before, for its total rejection of context and its attempt to reduce what I consider art to what it considers science. To me, New Criticism seems cold, dry, boring, and ineffective as a theory.

Reader-Response is fun in its way, and probably allows me the greatest latitude to exercise my opinions . . . but I can't help but feel that it is a cop-out as a serious theory. All you have to do is talk about your feelings while you were reading and voila, you have a piece of textual criticism. It can't be that easy, surely. I can't take myself seriously that way, at least.

Deconstruction is one that I've had a great deal of fun with this semester: presentations, papers, journals, and a lot of serious thought. And I was surprised to find that there is a great deal more to it as a serious approach, even for someone who believes in objective truth, than I might have expected. But unknowability is all you are ultimately allowed to arrive at, and that is far, far too limiting, surely. Certainly the objective reality of the text may always prove to be unknowable, but that doesn't mean that I can't draw a single, most-valid reading out of it which will be of use.

Psychoanalysis I have played with, both seriously and (more often) in jest, for years now. There's just something both quaint and entertaining about looking for sex in everything, just as a purely intellectual exercise. Phallic symbols, sexual frustration, parent-related trauma . . . all very inviting and easy to fall back on in a pinch. And, again, here is a theory that should be applied from time to time as the most useful in a particular case . . . but not always. Sex may well motivate everything, I don't know, but it isn't the meaning of everything, and as such I am not satisfied entirely with psychoanalysis.

Marxism is just flat out-dated, and does very little for me outside of functioning as an amusing joke. It, too, is fun to play with, and is actually applicable (largely for comedic value) in a few instances. Perhaps it can be most seriously applied where an author is clearly and intentionally dealing with the socio-economic themes which are dear to the Marxists heart, but for myself I have no interest in their politics.

Historical/Biographical certainly has its place, particularly in attempting to explain authorial intent. Why did the author produce this text, and what did it mean to them? But I still believe it is important to consider what it means, or ought to mean, to us. And there is no real room for that here. This theory I find extremely useful, but only in a secondary role, not as an end in itself.

Postcolonialism, Cultural Studies, Feminism, Post-feminism, and Queer Theory . . . all of these are variations on a theme. Not a bad theme, really . . . simply the idea that there are voices in both literature and history which are woefully underrepresented, and that this ought to be examined and rectified. Perhaps advocates of these theories, in their enthusiasm, turn a bit more material on its head than is strictly necessary, but it is an admirable effort nonetheless. But do they not see that they have simply boxed themselves in in a new location? There is no freedom here to accept certain types of literature on its own terms. I can't accept that, as much as I may enjoy dabbling in any of the above from time to time.

What I am not finding in any of these critical theories is a true accounting for literature itself. Some of them attempt to measure empirically, others to describe, others to account for in terms of libido or cold, hard cash, others to evaluate and re-evaluate from a dizzying array of angles, and still others merely to respond to. But who among them seeks to find a purpose and a great theme or drive behind the production and lasting value of literature? None . . . not really . . . not in the way I mean. These were the sorts of thoughts that were floating around in my head in a very disconnected fashion for quite some time.

And then, on the final day of class, Watson produced a handout for us which, quite frankly, made my week. I have copied it out below. It delineates the essentials of a critical theory which embodies precisely what I have been trying to do myself beginning some years ago. The origins of my own thought along those lines go back at least seven years or so to my first arguments over Harry Potter (if not even further back than that).

Essentially, the conflict that arose both in my own mind and between myself and others, and which has continued to resurface regularly throughout the intervening period, is whether I may positively state that any text is worth my time to examine and account for in terms of my own Christian worldview. Can I acceptably combine "All truth is God's truth" with "Art for art's sake" as I have long sought to do? The handout in class crystalized the definite, solid answer to that question which I have long postulated but seldom adequately proved: Yes.

But, I'm not sure if any of the above is making any sense at all, so maybe I'd better just get on with reproducing the contents of this handout for you. Maybe then everything will explain itself:

Christian Criticism

Assumptions with which to enter the text:
1. The glory of God is the central issue in all human endeavor.
2. The production of all literature is motivated by obedience or rebellion against God.
3. Your interpretation (insight) is influenced by your own relationship to the Spirit of God.
4. Literature, its writing, its reading, and its criticism is an arena for influencing conversion, redemption, and/or sanctification.

Questions to ask while reading the text:
1. Who has "fallen" and how did it happen?
2. What does the text say about redemption, forgiveness, enlightenment, or growth into wisdom?
3. What is the impact of evil/good, sin/forgiveness, etc. on the characters and their choices, dilemmas, and interactions with each other?
4. How is God's grace at work at various levels to bring about His moral and spiritual purpose in the text?
5. How is the text itself a product of God's grace?
6. What incarnations of God and godliness are reflected in the work (whether knowingly by the author or not)?
7. How does the work reflect or challenge a theistic or Christian understanding of life, the universe, and everything?

Practices to apply in analyzing the text:
1. Identify issues of sin, judgment and redemption in the text.
2. Identify who has spiritual power; what kind of spirit lies behind it; what is done with power; and who wants power.
3. Identify issues of faith, hope, and love.
4. Determine whether the text supports or undermines the status quo, "the world."
5. Observe the sacramental archetypes in the text (water, bread, blood, marriage, forgiveness, the call of God, etc.).
6. Trace the "passion" of the main character (figures of agony, betrayal, trial, execution, resurrection, etc.).

This, outlined in clear, practical terms and steps, is the theory I have been blindly striving to apply to everything I have read or watched for the past several years, with varying degrees of success. Suddenly having it dropped in my lap, and all contained so handily on a single sheet of paper, was . . . well, rather a rush to say the least. I felt both vindicated and purposeful . . . and a little disappointed he hadn't introduced it earlier in the course.

Anyway, I think I finally have a pet critical theory.

Posted by Jared at 12:59 PM | TrackBack

December 12, 2005

Gendering Till We Have Faces

Till We Have Faces presents C. S. Lewis's retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche from the viewpoint of one of the "evil" older sisters from the original myth. Lewis's changed message in this book is about the difference between sacred, selfless love and profane, selfish love, and about truly knowing ourselves ("having faces") before we can know "the gods" and meet them face to face. However, very little of that is truly related to the most important aspect of the story: its treatment of gender identity.

The story is narrated in the first person by Orual, the ugly but clever oldest daughter of the King of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian society heavily influenced by the Hellenistic world. The King of Glome has no sons, so Orual inherits the throne when he is no longer able to rule. She has begun covering her face shortly before this time, and she soon becomes a wise, strong ruler, adept both in battle and at the negotiating table, and leads Glome into a period of prosperity during a long and profitable reign.

It is difficult to stress enough how insignificant Orual, as a girl in the royal family, actually is while growing up. As far as The King is concerned, she has no value whatsoever, because not only is she female, she is ugly, a fact which he reminds her of as often as possible. She lacks both the value of being a male heir and of being desirable to marry off to a potential ally.

The King, with hopes of a male heir, acquires a learned Greek slave named The Fox, and he sets him to teaching Orual as practice for when the male heir arrives. This is very fortunate later on when no male heir is forthcoming as The King begins to require Orual's new wisdom in his deliberation in the throne room. As far as he is concerned, she might as well be of assistance there since her looks will not allow her to be of any other use. The skills she acquires at this time will serve her well later.

Meanwhile, Orual's early life begins miserably and proceeds unsuccessfully because she does not fall into the proper stereotypes of femininity. Shortly before her father falls gravely ill and is unable to rule any longer, however, she assumes a thick veil which hides her face and begins to train with swords and riding horses. Additionally, she has managed to find a place in the formerly male-dominated world of the throne room, where important deliberations take place and a well-developed intellect is vital.

By the time her father is dead, she has assumed many more aspects of masculinity than femininity. She is performing her gender, as per the theories of Judith Butler, and that gender is male. In fact, Bardia, one of her most trusted advisers, observes "Oh, Lady, Lady, it's a thousand pities they didn't make you a man" (Lewis 197). Although this comment wounds her deeply at the time, she forcefully pushes that emotion, and all others, aside.

Before long Orual is experiencing more and greater success than ever before in her life. From one perspective she has conformed her personality to the demands of a male-dominated society. From another perspective, however, it was only by breaking free of the constricting gender identity imposed on her from birth that she was able to fulfill her potential. She has natural skills of both mind and her body which would never have been allowed to mature within the bounds of her former gender.

In this way, Lewis seems to show a definite bent against the entire social construct that is gender identity in Part I of the book. People of the male sex should not be forced to perform as members of the male gender, and people of the female sex should not be forced to perform as members of the female gender. Rather, everyone should be free to exercise the full range of their identity, wherever that leads them in terms of gender. Glome's pre-Christian, patriarchal society is, of course, full of these social expectations, but in Orual Lewis seems to have created a character that movingly transcends those boundaries.

However, he pretty much blows it in Part II. In this much shorter portion of the book, Lewis asserts that, rather than finding her true identity by abandoning gender-based modes of thought, Orual has lost it. Almost her last experience before death is a beatific vision in which she finds herself remade in the image of her beautiful younger sister, Psyche (the essential type of femininity), for only then does she truly have a face and an identity with which to meet the gods. Lewis begins his book by freeing his female character from a prison of gender, which would have led to a life of unfulfilled potential and frustration. He ends his book by twisting this on its head and asserting that this freedom was, paradoxically, the real prison. He sets her free by imprisoning her once again, perpetuating the stereotypes of a male-dominated literary tradition with yet one more book.

Posted by Jared at 01:27 PM | TrackBack

The Historical Flannery in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"

In 1953, Flannery O'Connor wrote "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," which would become the title piece in her first published collection of short stories. One of her shorter and more anthologized works, the story concerns a Southern family (parents, two children, baby, and grandmother) that sets out on a vacation to Florida. The grandmother, who has been opposed to the trip from the beginning, partially on the grounds that there is a notorious killer named "The Misfit" on the loose, has snuck her cat, Pitty Sing, into the car against the will of her son.

Along the way to Florida, she regularly feels the need to make conversation and generally makes a nuisance of herself, finally manipulating the children into begging for a detour so they can visit an old plantation mansion she recalls from her youth. However, much to the grandmother's horror, she suddenly realizes that her memory has been playing tricks on her, and the plantation house is not located anywhere near where they are. At about this time, the cat gets loose and causes the family to have a wreck. No one is hurt, but The Misfit and his accomplices happen along in the midst of the chaos.

The grandmother recognizes him and stupidly blurts out his name, prompting him to send the family off into the woods one by one to be executed. While this is going on, he holds a discussion with the grandmother during which she tries every trick she knows to convince him not to hurt her, almost to the point of denying the Resurrection of Christ. Then, suddenly, she experiences a shock of revelation. She finally escapes her self-centered babbling long enough to recognize that The Misfit deserves her love and compassion as if he were one of her own children.

As she reaches out to him, he shoots her, observing that "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" (O'Connor 153).

There are two vital historical and autobiographical keys to understanding the full context within which this story was originally written. First, Flannery O'Connor was a devout Roman Catholic whose faith played a significant role in her fiction (and nonfiction). Second, Flannery O'Connor was a native of Georgia writing during the Southern Literary Renaissance which took place during the middle of the 20th century.

Aside from studies in Iowa and some time in Connecticut, Flannery O'Connor remained largely a home body, never straying far from the family farm in Milledgeville where she raised peacocks. She published her first book, Wise Blood in 1952 and died in 1964 at the age of 39. Her particular concerns as a writer in the South during the Literary Renaissance manifest themselves in this story through her concern with familial relationships, the importance of historical consciousness in the grandmother's mind, and the religious concerns of two of the characters.

In "Good Man" each successive generation is portrayed as having less respect for their elders than the generation before it, yet the grandmother continues to live with her son despite the difficulty of putting up with her. This indicates that family connections are still important to her son even if he isn't happy about it. At the end of the story, the grandmother recognizes that everyone is connected to everyone else in some way, all part of the same family.

Historical consciousness crops up a number of times in the story, mostly from the grandmother. She speaks fondly of the way things used to be, reminiscing about the good old days when people were nice and decent and had good manners. The cause of the family's demise is a detour to visit an ancient house that the grandmother remembers from the past.

At one point on the trip, the grandmother points out a graveyard that was once attached to a plantation. When her granddaughter asks where the plantation is, the grandmother replies, "Gone With the Wind [. . .] Ha. Ha" (O'Connor 139). This reference, of course, is to the famous book and movie which gained immense popularity in the South when they were released in 1936 and 1939, respectively. Elements like this not only lend the story a distinctly Southern flavor, but cultural references show the importance of the time period as well.

Additionally, beginning in the late 1920s writers like O'Connor became some of the first Southerners in history to openly portray the South in a bad (or even questionable) light. They began to question their world honestly in an unprecedented fashion, and the result is the finest literature ever seen in that region, and some of the finest in the nation's history as well. O'Connor examined many of the same subjects that her contemporaries were examining: the poverty-stricken, socially backward country people of the region. But rather than attributing their condition to any economic or social trends, she blamed an unfulfilled longing for God's grace. O'Connor's own religious notions of good and bad approaches to things like prayer and Christ, and her views on states of grace are very obvious in "Good Man," particularly near the end.

The grandmother's religion is portrayed as something which she has never really thought about, only used like a charm or a magic spell, and now it has ceased working for her. "Pray, pray" she tells The Misfit (O'Connor 149), and then later "If you would pray [. . .] Jesus would help you" (O'Connor 150). Still later, she is almost entirely unable to speak: "She found herself saying, 'Jesus. Jesus,' meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing" (O'Connor 151).

Finally, when everything else has failed, she is reduced to a half-hearted denial. "'Maybe He didn't raise the dead,' the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying" (O'Connor 152). Then, her mind clears for an instant, she has her epiphany. Experiencing true charity for perhaps the first time ever she reaches towards someone else in the midst of her own troubles (almost certainly for the first time), and she is dead almost immediately.

The Misfit, too, addresses the topic of religion, something he seems to have thought about too much. His style of oratory as he speaks to the grandmother is vaguely reminiscent of evangelical preaching, and he claims to have been a gospel singer (among many other things) at some time in the past. When the grandmother asks him why he doesn't pray, he claims to be doing all right by himself. We soon learn that he believes that "Jesus thown [sic] everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime [. . .] I call myself The Misfit because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment" (O'Connor 151).

Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead [. . .] and he shouldn't have done it. He thown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can - by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness (O'Connor 152).

The Misfit cannot believe in anything he hasn't seen for himself, and there is no way for him to have seen whether or not Christ's claims are true, therefore he cannot believe. But he is haunted by the thought that it might be true, and the conflict is tearing him up. In the meantime, as he concludes at the end of the story, "It's no real pleasure in life" (O'Connor 153).

Posted by Jared at 11:29 AM | TrackBack

December 11, 2005

The Kitchen Boy Who Would Be King: Steerpike and Class Struggle in Gormenghast

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels are, as previously indicated, densely populated with rich characters that move, sometimes in dignity, sometimes in madness, but always within the constricting bounds of ritual, through day-to-day life in Gormenghast castle. There is a place for everyone in the castle, and those places have been occupied by them and people like them for over seventy generations. The patriarch of the Groan family presides as lord and master. His family is waited on hand and foot by a vast array of servants.

There are the coveted, prestigious positions: Lord of the Library, personal butler to the Earl of Gormenghast, personal nurse to the children of the line of Groan, Chief Gardner, Head Cook, Duster in the Hall of Bright Carvings. Then there are the villagers whose houses huddle against the outer walls, and who only enter the castle once per year for the Festival of the Carvings or when a new Groan baby requires a wet nurse. However, lowliest in the hierarchy of class that governs the world of Gormenghast, even lower than these ignored peasants, are the countless, nameless kitchen workers. Little better than slaves, these hapless individuals work tirelessly in the heat and the smoke and the noise to perform all tasks related to this area of castle life. For instance:

The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with grey slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers.' It had been their privilege on reaching adolescence to discover that, being the sons of their fathers, their careers had been arranged for them and that stretching ahead of them lay their identical lives consisting of an unimaginative if praiseworthy duty. This was to restore, each morning, to the great grey floor and the lofty walls of the kitchen a stainless complexion. On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling. Through the character of their trade, their arms had become unusually powerful, and when they let their huge hands hang loosely at their sides, there was more than an echo of the simian. Coarse as these men appeared, they were an integral part of the Great Kitchen. Without the Grey Scrubbers something very earthy, very heavy, very real would be missing to any sociologist searching in that steaming room, for the completion of a circle of temperaments, a gamut of the lower human values (Peake 18-19).

It is the centuries-old system of class hierarchy which relegates these workers to a role where they are so obviously oppressed and exploited by the ruling class. But one, single bold member of the proletariat in Gormenghast is not satisfied with the injustice of his subjugation. His name is Steerpike, and he is a kitchen boy. Unlike his legion of fellows, who are content to remain the simpering lackeys of the bloated chef, Abiatha Swelter, Steerpike possesses ambition and an overwhelming sense that his mind makes him worthy of something better.

And he is most definitely right! Steerpike's resourcefulness, ambition, and natural intelligence enable him to escape his job in the kitchen, taking a series of successively higher positions in Gormenghast: first as assistant to Dr. Prunesquallor and finally as Lord of the Library and Keeper of Ritual himself. Yet, in The Gormenghast Novels Steerpike is considered the villain because of his efforts to overthrow the established order in the castle.

What that order amounts to is the perpetuation of an aristocratic class system which crushes the many beneath it while glorifying the few. And as for those few who are glorified, many of them are certifiably insane, and those who are not insane are for the most part either cruel or stupid. Their power derives from, in one memorable scene (I kid you not), a farcical aquatic ceremony. In a broader sense the ruling class stays in power simply because that is their traditional role, handed down for over six dozen generations, and no tradition in Gormenghast Castle ever goes away, once begun.

Despite the obvious and grave problems with this system, Peake's storytelling angle very clearly seems to support the ruling class in all its decadence, in particular the heir to it, Titus Groan. Steerpike's many excellent qualities (courage, intelligence, resourcefulness, skill), however, are of no consequence except insofar as they help him in his "evil" designs, for he wishes to overthrow the established order of rank and class. This book very clearly shows the tension between the classes and the revolutionary spirit of the Proletariat waiting to break forth, but the sympathies of the narrator are entirely with the old, hierarchical order.

Posted by Jared at 11:20 PM | TrackBack

Glamorous Indigo Eye: Fuchsia's Sexuality Revealed in "The Frivolous Cake"

Fuchsia Groan, older sister of the title character of Titus Groan (first of the three incomparable Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake), is a character who cannot truly be understood and sympathized with without an understanding of her psychological make-up. As the neglected eldest daughter of the 76th Earl of the House of Groan, Lord of the ponderous, sprawling, and decaying Gormenghast Castle, Fuchsia is presented as somewhat of a tragic heroine (bearing more than a slight resemblance to Ophelia, when all is said and done) when we first meet her at the age of about fifteen.

She is a lonely and reclusive girl, neglected all her life, but now even less important as a result of the birth of a male heir, Titus. Her love for her father, Lord Sepulchrave, is rivaled in intensity only by her hatred for her mother, Gertrude. Both, however, are equally indifferent to her existence. Fuchsia, the perpetual child who never really grows up despite her physical age, has a very clear Electra Complex. Meanwhile, the only two people who seem to care for her at all are her mousy nurse, Nanny Slagg, and the effeminate Doctor Prunesquallor (unmarried and living with his spinster sister, Irma).

Prunesquallor, however, is (as our story begins) totally absorbed with the birthing of baby Titus, and Nanny Slagg, who will take charge of the new baby, is equally preoccupied. Fuchsia's fury at the arrival of a baby brother is boundless. She responds to the news by throwing a tantrum and retreating to her sanctuary, the existence of which is unknown to anyone but Nanny Slagg.

Behind her bed, a door in the wall leads up steep and rickety stairs into a series of attics which lead finally to a window to the outside world. In this sanctum, Fuchsia has comfortable furniture, food, and all of her favorite things about her. These things include pictures, costumes, and books of all kinds. Nanny cannot climb the stairs to reach her here, and when she is inside this place, it is almost as though she has retreated into her own mind. In her sanctuary, she is untouchable and safe.

Among the many books she keeps in this room there is a book of poetry, and her favorite of all the poems in the book is a nonsense piece called "The Frivolous Cake" (Peake 64-65) This poem, reproduced in its entirety beneath the fold, provides a fascinating summary of Fuchsia's psychological state and subtly foreshadows the course of her fateful romance with the conniving and evil Steerpike, who will soon invade her world.

The poem is about a cake (a fruitcake, no less) which sails "on a pointless sea" (line 2) beneath a strangely-colored sky, amidst flying fish and enchanted islands populated with fantastic creatures. This cake, all unsuspecting, is pursued by an amorous knife which, when it finally catches up to her, proceeds to devour her in a fit of passion.

The life and environment of this "frivolous cake" parallel Fuchsia's own activities and picture of her surroundings. She has neither duties nor cares, and may come and go as she pleases. This she does, "in a manner emphatic and free" (line 4), floating about in a world which she can make no sense of and over which she has no control.

Soon, a new figure enters the scene where the frivolous cake has cavorted so carelessly, "filled to the brim/With the fun of her curranty crew" (lines 19-20). This figure is, of course, the knife, swiftly pursuing the cake through the water, and winking "his glamorous indigo eye/In the wake of his future wife" (lines 31-32). This tension within the poem refers directly to the imminent sexual pursuit of Fuchsia by Steerpike, who relentlessly worms his way into Fuchsia's affections in order to take advantage of her connections. Steerpike carries a swordstick about with him wherever he goes. In the poem, the imagery of the phallic knife pursuing the fruit-filled cake is unmistakably sexual within the poem.

In the end, the knife reaches the cake, and crumbs begin to fly in all directions as the "tropical air vibrates to the drone/Of a cake in the throes of love" (lines 39-40). The phallic knife, burying itself in the cake, satisfies its own lusts but destroys the fragile cake in the process (even though the cake doesn't seem to realize that it is being devoured). Meanwhile, Steerpike grows closer and closer to Fuchsia, and she remains oblivious of what his true purpose is until it is almost too late.

When she does realize what he has been up to, a part of her dies and she sinks into deep melancholia. "Her need for love had never been fulfilled; her love for others had never been suspected, or wanted . . . a girl who was, in spite of her title and all it implied, of little consequence in the eyes of the castle" (760). The combination of events drives her to the very brink of suicide, and she ultimately drowns in a flood, a sea just as pointless as that which the frivolous cake of her favorite poem sailed on.

"The Frivolous Cake" by Mervyn Peake

A freckled and frivolous cake there was
That sailed on a pointless sea,
Or any lugubrious lake there was
In a manner emphatic and free.
How jointlessly, and how jointlessly
The frivolous cake sailed by
On the waves of the ocean that pointlessly
Threw fish to the lilac sky.

Oh, plenty and plenty of hake there was
Of a glory beyond compare,
And every conceivable make there was
Was tossed through the lilac air.

Up the smooth billows and over the crests
Of the cumbersome combers flew
The frivolous cake with a knife in the wake
Of herself and her curranty crew.
Like a swordfish grim it would bounce and skim
(This dinner knife fierce and blue),
And the frivolous cake was filled to the brim
With the fun of her curranty crew.

Oh, plenty and plenty of hake there was
Of a glory beyond compare -
And every conceivable make there was
Was tossed through the lilac air.

Around the shores of the Elegant Isles
Where the cat-fish bask and purr
And lick their paws with adhesive smiles
And wriggle their fins of fur,
They fly and fly 'neath the lilac sky -
The frivolous cake, and the knife
Who winketh his glamorous indigo eye
In the wake of his future wife.

The crumbs blow free down the pointless sea
To the beat of a cakey heart
And the sensitive steel of the knife can feel
That love is a race apart
In the speed of the lingering light are blown
The crumbs to the hake above,
And the tropical air vibrates to the drone
Of a cake in the throes of love.

Posted by Jared at 07:50 PM | TrackBack

"This Be the Verse" . . . That Tears Itself Apart

Well, folks, it's that time again: time for the ol' Watson lit journals to come out to play here at the end of yet another semester. For my opening act I'll be applying Deconstruction Theory to "This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin, just as my group did during our class presentation (full text of poem appears beneath the fold . . . oh, and it has a couple of naughty words, if that sort of thing curls your toenails).

In the journals ahead, I'll be covering a whole gamut of contemporary critical theories: Freudian Psychoanalysis, Marxist Theory, Historicism, and Gender Studies . . . all (well, most) delightfully pagan in their outlook. I am relishing the chance to dabble in a wide range of perspectives that fall well outside conventional Christian norms. This'll be fun, I promise.

Philip Larkin's "This Be the Verse" is an interesting study in self-defeating bitterness and angst. On the surface, his poem suggests that parents inevitably screw up their children, whether intentionally or not, by passing on their faults. However, this is not entirely the parents' fault since they, too, were screwed up by their parents (old fools in out-dated clothes), whom Larkin accuses of being "soppy-stern" (line 7), pairing off two apparently contradictory words which ultimately don't seem to mean anything.

In this way, the progression of human history from generation to generation becomes a sort of relay race where each runner passes misery on to the next runner, and with each successive runner the misery becomes that much heavier and more difficult to carry, deepening, as Larkin puts it, "like a coastal shelf" (line 10). Presumably, like a coastal shelf, man's misery will eventually drop over the edge into the depths and the human race will face drastic consequences. Larkin's solution to this problem? Ditch your parents as quickly as possible and avoid having any children of your own at all costs.

Now, this is, on the surface, what the poem seems to be saying. However, if we go back and examine more carefully what Larkin's use of language actually communicates, we see that his proposed solution is actually self-contradictory on two levels. Line 3 asserts that our parents fill us "with the faults they had" (emphasis mine). The use of past tense seems to indicate that these faults no longer plague our parents, almost as if they have purged themselves of these faults by handing them to us (as per the relay race analogy). This idea of something passed from one person to another is confirmed by line 9: "Man hands on misery to man."

In light of this, what might Larkin's command to "Get out as early as you can,/And don't have any kids yourself" (lines 11-12) now mean? Well, that partially depends on the motive for getting out and avoiding children. If the emphasis is on the first line, the motive seems to be a selfish one. In other words, escape from your parents and avoid having kids so that you don't have to deal with any of these problems anymore. Save yourself that grief.

However, taking the alternate reading of the poem into account, whoever follows this advice will retain the faults and misery of previous generations. Unable to purge themselves by having children, they will carry this deepening burden themselves throughout their lives. This, then, is no solution at all for the person with selfish motives. They must have children or face an intolerable strain.

On the other hand, if the emphasis is on the last line, the motives seem a bit more altruistic. It is almost as if we are being counseled to avoid having children for the childrens' sake rather than our own. However, in this case (if the motive then, is indeed to save later generations from the increasing burden of grief and misery which may ultimately destroy them), the proposed solution is still a failure. If everyone were to refuse to perpetuate the human race, ostensibly to save humanity, the entire race would be gone within a single generation.

This fundamental contradiction within the poem's own verbal structure ultimately subverts its entire intended meaning, transforming it into a meaningless expression of negative emotions which fails entirely to address the problems it raises. Larkin has been defeated in his attempts to communicate by the inherent subjectivity of language, which allows his point to be undermined and destroyed.

"This Be the Verse" by Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Posted by Jared at 02:50 PM | TrackBack

December 09, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part X


The Man Who Was Thursday (G. K. Chesterton) - There are seven members of the radical Central Anarchist Council who, for security purposes, name themselves after the days of the week - Sunday, Monday, etc. However, the turn of events soon cast doubt upon their true identities, for the man who was Thursday is not the impassioned young poet he pretends to be, but rather a member of Scotland Yard's anti-terrorist squad of secret detectives. Who and what are the true identities of the other days of the week? Chesterton unwinds the mysterious entanglements in his own inventive and lively way and then escalates the mounting nightmare of paradox and surprise, culminating in a shocking revelation. He probes the mysteries of behavior and belief in an all too human world.

Chesterton wrote a whole lot of great stuff. I adore the Father Brown Mysteries. and Wilson's got his own little (very little, I guess) Orthodoxy cult going on. Last Christmas break, I camped out in Barnes & Noble over the course of a few days and read (among other things) The Ball and the Cross and The Man Who Was Thursday. They were both good, but the latter was magnificent . . . a thrilling, convoluted, suspenseful, and shocking story of intrigue on a global scale. Chesterton piles on the plot twists until the reader doesn't know what to believe anymore, finally taking the whole plot in a wholly unexpected direction, full of powerful Christian symbolism, at the very end.


The Inimitable Jeeves (P. G. Wodehouse) - Bertie Wooster's friend Bingo falls in love with every woman he meets, from Mabel, the waitress at the bun shop, to the Amazonian Honoria Glossop (whom Aunt Agatha has earmarked for Bertie). Naturally there are obstacles to be overcome - the matter of allowances, class prejudices and a lack of revolutionary tendencies. Rely on Jeeves, the consumate gentleman's gentleman, to apply his superb brain-power in emancipating Bertie and Bingo from the tightest of corners in plenty of time for tea.

I don't remember when I first heard of P. G. Wodehouse, but Watson and his three shelves of Wodehouse books probably had something to do with it. I got a collection of three Jeeves books for Christmas a year or two back, and worked my way through them at my leisure. I distinctly recall needing to read them alone because I created a significant disturbance whenever there were other people around. The adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster are so funny, I just couldn't help it. This particular book had a great overarching plot with loads of deliciously humorous supporting stories that built towards its conclusion. Wodehouse is definitely one of the more fun (and funny) reads I've experienced in recent years.


Everything That Rises Must Converge (Flannery O'Connor) - Collection of nine short stories by Flannery O'connor, published posthumously in 1965. The flawed characters of each story are fully revealed in apocalyptic moments of conflict and violence that are presented with comic detachment. The title story is a tragicomedy about social pride, racial bigotry, generational conflict, false liberalism, and filial dependence. Similarly, "The Comforts of Home" is about an intellectual son with an Oedipus complex. Driven by the voice of his dead father, the son accidentally kills his sentimental mother in an attempt to murder a harlot. The other stories are "A View of the Woods," "Parker's Back," "The Enduring Chill," "Greenleaf," "The Lame Shall Enter First," "Revelation," and "Judgment Day."

I like Flannery O'Connor so much that it makes Rachel jealous. She gets tired of hearing "Flannery O'Connor this" and "Flannery O'Connor that" . . . is it my fault that O'Connor is handy when you need paper or presentation topics in a pinch? Well, maybe I have been a tad bit insufferable since I got a copy of her Collected Works. I have read (and probably raved about) all of the short stories and essays already, but I have not yet ventured into the novels. Maybe this Christmas Break . . .

Anyway, I love all of her short stories, and it was difficult to choose between A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Both are excellent. However, ultimately I decided that the latter was the superior collection. Her earlier stories are a bit more heavy-handed in their symbolism, a bit more obviously grotesque in their technique. The later stories, on the other hand, are much more subtle and less fantastical and seem largely to possess greater depth as a result.

I have read that O'Connor obsessively groomed, touched-up, and edited her stories until she thought they were perfect . . . and it shows. And, of course, the powerful Christian themes she addresses have lost none of their spiritual relevance in the forty years since she died. She is one of the supreme masters of her craft.


Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) - Humbert Humbert is a European intellectual adrift in America, haunted by memories of a lost adolescent love. When he meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, he constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her, but first he must get rid of her mother. In spite of his diabolical wit, reality proves to be more slippery than Humbert's feverish fantasies, and Lolita refuses to conform to his image of the perfect lover.

Surprised? You probably should have seen this coming when I praised Nabokov's prose so highly while talking about Mervyn Peake. I've read Lolita twice now, seen the movie version twice, and written two sizable (roughly ten-page) papers. Nabokov's grasp of the English language, and the ease with which he manipulates and shapes it, astounds me. Nabokov is a true literary artist, and Lolita is a true work of literary art. The prose is as exquisite as it is impenetrable, with its maze of hints, riddles, and allusions. This, however, only serves to make the work a good deal richer with each successive reading. The plot is tense, the characters are tragic, and the moral and emotional impact (at least for me) is high. Lolita is certainly not for everyone, but then . . . few books are.


As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) - At the heart of this 1930 novel is the Bundren family's bizarre journey to Jefferson to bury Addie, the family matriarch. Speaking in no less than sixteen distinct voices, Faulkner lets each family member, including Addie, and others along the way tell their private responses to Addie's life through the brilliant flow of stream-of-consciousness prose.

I just read this about halfway through the semester. It is only the second book I have read by Faulkner, but I was floored by it. As I Lay Dying is a good deal more accessible than The Sound and the Fury, but it still doesn't hand everything to the reader on a plate. Faulkner masterfully and believeably weaves together over a dozen totally different voices to create a story which could only be set in the deep South. I decided not long after finishing The Sound and the Fury that I was a definite fan of stream-of-consciousness. I enjoy the unique challenge it presents to the reader and the writing skill required on the part of the author (when, as with Faulkner, it is well-done).

In this book, the characters are very alive and very real, and their situation inspires a great deal of empathy on the part of the reader, partly because they are so movingly described and their struggles so memorably portrayed. It is not a long book, but, as the narrative slowly unwound and drew to a close, I felt as if I had been with the characters for quite some time.

And so ends my "Top Fifty" list, at last. I started it nearly a month ago believing that it was practically ready to post. Little did I suspect how much more time it would take me to put it together properly . . . or how little time I would have to do so. Now that it's over, I will return to regular posting . . . in fact, I've almost got a bit of a pile-up already what with all sorts of eventfulness going on here and there. Before I bring this whole thing to a close, though, I'm going to go ahead and toss out a quick list (in no particular order) of two dozen books that were in the running for the "Top Fifty," but didn't quite make the cut . . . just for kicks and giggles. Some of these were very difficult to remove, some not nearly so much . . .

By the Great Horn Spoon! by Sid Fleischman
Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls
Redwall by Brian Jacques
The Firm by John Grisham
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
Homer Price by Robert McCloskey
Rainbow Six by Tom Clancy
The Twenty-One Balloons by William Péne DuBois
God's Smuggler by Brother Andrew
Jackaroo by Cynthia Voight
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
The High King by Lloyd Alexander
Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Phoenix and the Carpet by E. Nesbit
Christy by Catherine Marshall
The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
Escape from Warsaw Ian Seraillier
The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

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December 08, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part IX


Master and Commander (Patrick O'Brian) - This, the first in the splendid series of Jack Aubrey novels, establishes the friendship between Captain Aubrey, Royal Navy, and Stephen Maturin, ship's surgeon and intelligence agent, against the thrilling backdrop of the Napoleonic wars. Details of life aboard a man-of-war in Nelson's navy are faultlessly rendered: the conversational idiom of the officers in the ward room and the men on the lower deck, the food, the floggings, the mysteries of the wind and the rigging, and the roar of broadsides as great ships close in battle.

Fry loaned me this book when I went back to Guatemala for Christmas two years ago, and I read it over the break. I had already seen the movie by this point, it had met with my approval, but little did I suspect the vast depth the books add to the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. In addition to the dazzlingly captivating characters in the book, I was drawn in by a narrative style that reminded me very much of Jane Austen (as both the second and third books in the series have continued to do). Master and Commander is a supremely magnificent historical read. Aubrey, master tactician on the water, and Maturin, master spy on the land, are a literary pair on a level with the likes of Holmes and Watson, and certainly worthy of an entire series to chronicle their adventures.


The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde) - Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are both in love with the same mythical suitor. Jack Worthing has wooed Gewndolen as Ernest while Algernon has also posed as Ernest to win the heart of Jack’s ward, Cecily. When all four arrive at Jack’s country home on the same weekend—the "rivals" to fight for Ernest’s undivided attention and the "Ernests" to claim their beloveds—pandemonium breaks loose.

Few plays, if any, are more fun to read (particularly in a theatrical setting) than this one. The SC Players have done it twice in the past, and both times I played my favorite character, Algernon. I have also read through the play on my own a few times. I remember once in British Lit II when I, sitting in the back of the room, randomly opened to it in our textbook and began to read, only just managing to stifle my laughter (which is so much more difficult the harder you try).

Wilde in this play is simply so recklessly frivolous and trivial, and it seems as though every singly line of dialogue states the facts of life in a manner which is both precisely the opposite of the truth and (at the same time) more true than we might care to believe. In this case, as well, I happen to own the movie version (which I believe I actually saw before I had ever read the play) and I haul it out and watch it every so often as well. The play is a short, light read with gut-bustingly hilarious dialogue and a wickedly convoluted (but easy to follow) plot which provides the audience with a shocking twist and an excruciating pun all rolled into one at play's end.


The Gormenghast Novels (Mervyn Peake) - A doomed lord, an emergent hero, and a dazzling array of bizarre creatures inhabit the magical world of these novels. At the center of it all is the darkly humorous, stunningly complex tale of the life of Titus, heir to Lord Sepulchrave. He stands to inherit the miles of rambling stone and mortar that form Gormenghast Castle and its kingdom, where all events are predetermined by a complex ritual whose origins are lost in history, understood only by Sourdust, Lord of the Library. Titus will one day rule as the seventy-seventh Earl unless the conniving Steerpike, who is determined to rise above his menial position and control the House of Groan, has his way. The Gormenghast royal family, the castle's decidedly eccentric staff, and the peasant artisans living around the dreary, crumbling structure make up the cast of characters in this engrossing story. Peake's command of language and unique style set the tone and shape of an intricate, slow-moving world of ritual and stasis where all is like a dream--lush, fantastical, and vivid.

Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Novels astound me on two levels. First, they are unbelievably good. Peake's prose remains virtually unmatched in my mind by anyone except perhaps Vladimir Nabokov. His story, characters, and world are deep, rich, and full of surprises and symbolism. He defies classification . . . the books are generally classified as fantasy for sheer convenience, for they do not fall into any known category. Second, at times it seems as though no one has ever heard of Gormenghast, much less read the books. How can writing and storytelling of this caliber fly practically under the radar for over half a century?

The first two books are totally enthralling and nearly flawless, the third less so. Peake envisioned a truly epic series which would follow his hero, Titus Groan, from birth to old age. The pace he expected to maintain is evident when we have reached page 100 or so of Titus Groan and our hero has only just emerged from the wound. Sadly, Peake became mentally diseased after beginning the third book, during which Titus is supposed to be in his early twenties, more or less, and died just a few scribbled pages into book four. Titus Alone, while still brilliant in a unique way, shows the sad effects of Peake's decline. The story is often confusing and disjointed and lacks some of the perfection of the earlier works. Nevertheless, it is an excellent read, and the first two books stand alone very effectively.

As a brief preview of coming attractions, I've been absolutely itching to begin producing a body of literary analysis of the works from a variety of perspectives (there are certainly plenty of angles of approach). Soon, my friends, soon . . .


Man and Superman (George Bernard Shaw) - John Tanner is horrified to discover that he is the object of Ann Whitefield's ambitions in her search for a satisfactory husband. For Tanner, political pamphleteer and independent mind, escape is the only option. But Ann is grimly resigned to society's expectations and ready for the chase. A protracted, allegorical detour through Hell in the third act features a mind-numbing, but fascinating debate between supernatural figures and reveals the startling philosophical thesis of the play before the final denoument. In this caustic satire on romantic conventions, Shaw casts his net wide across European culture to draw on works by Mozart, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle for his re-telling of the Don Juan myth. Haled as "the first great twentieth-century English play," this remains a classic exposé of the eternal struggle between the sexes.

I believe this is the third and final playwright to make my list. Shaw, much like his character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, is not in the least afraid of offending everyone equally. His plays are radically and courageously anti-establishment in a way that I find it difficult not to admire. In addition to his pointed and often disturbing philosophical agendas, Shaw has a devastating and hilarious wit which he employs to brilliant effect in his plays. This is my favorite of his plays due in large part to a ponderous third act (of four) which outlines a starkly pragmatic philosophy of life (the "Life-Force" Philosophy, in fact) from within a wicked vision of the afterlife that (in his day) only Shaw would dare to dream up and put on the stage.

Besides this third act, which is a dream sequence that lasts longer than the other three acts combined and contributes next to nothing to the plot while slipping in nearly everything regarding the point that Shaw is attempting to put across, Man and Superman is a cute and funny romantic comedy filled with quite a number of truly humorous characters and situations.


A Room With a View (E. M. Forster) - This Edwardian social comedy explores love and prim propriety among an eccentric cast of characters assembled in an Italian pensione and in a corner of Surrey, England. A charming young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, faints into the arms of a fellow Britisher when she witnesses a murder in a Florentine piazza. Attracted to this man, George Emerson--who is entirely unsuitable and whose father just may be a Socialist--Lucy is soon at war with the snobbery of her class and her own conflicting desires. Back in England she is courted by a more acceptable, if stifling, suitor, and soon realizes she must make a startling decision that will decide the course of her future: she is forced to choose between convention and passion.

The process by which E. M. Forster has become one of my favorite authors is singularly bizarre . . . no less so as this is the only book of his which I have read. I first encountered him in British Literature II during the spring of my sophomore year, in which we read a chapter of A Passage to India and watched the 1984 movie version. The movie instantly became one of my favorites and I have since watched it at least three times. Sometime during the following fall semester I got the movie versions of both Howard's End (featuring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson) and A Room With a View (with Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith) from the library and loved them both. By now I had enjoyed three movies based on the works of Forster without once having read one of his books. Unacceptable.

Returning to the library, I arbitrarily settled on A Room With a View as Christmas Break reading and loved it. The book is hilarious, a fantastic read from its period. It skewers both Romantics and Aesthetics, and generally has a great deal of fun at the expense of the British upper-middle class. I'm already planning to squeeze A Passage to India in sometime this Christmas Break. We shall see.

To be continued . . .

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December 06, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VIII


Paradise Lost (John Milton) - This is the quintessential epic English poem. Penned by Milton in the 1600s, it relates the story of Lucifer's revenge on God after he has been cast out of Heaven. Bursting from the confines of Hell he blazes a trail to Earth, bent on corrupting God's pristine masterwork in any way he can. Little does he know that even his success in destroying Man's innocence and introducing Sin into the world will lead to God's ultimate victory with mankind's redemption and salvation. In the poem's final section, an angel reveals God's plan for mankind's history to Adam in its entirety, giving him hope for the future even as he is cast forth from the Garden of Eden forever. Beautifully written and vividly described, the real strength of Paradise Lost lies in its characters and in its source material: The Bible.

Oh, look at me! I'm such a poser (again)! I have Milton and Shakespeare on my list! Well, this is a book which I have written about before, it just so happens. I stayed up all night to finish Paradise Lost one Christmas break because I couldn't put it down, and I was so excited about it that I got up and started writing a post that shows definite effects of sleepiness. That aside, I guess Milton probably isn't for everyone, and I've heard a lot of complaints about his theology (however relevant that may be to a literary work). But whether he gets it right or wrong in the end, Milton did give me a startling new perspective on the story of Creation and Fall which, while it probably didn't shed much valuable light on the story itself, gave me a lot to think about with respect to almost everything else. And, in the end, isn't that the essential point of a retelling anyway?


Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (J. K. Rowling) - The pivotal fourth novel in the seven part tale of Harry Potter's training as a wizard and his coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Harry gets away from the pernicious Dursleys and goes to the Quidditch World Cup with Hermione, Ron, and the Weasleys. He then begins his fourth year at Hogwarts Academy where he is mysteriously entered in an unusual contest that challenges his wizarding skills, friendships and character. The event involves two other rival schools of magic, and a competition that hasn't happened in a hundred years. Amid signs that an old enemy is growing stronger, all he wants is to be a normal, fourteen year old wizard. Unfortunately for Harry Potter, he's not normal - even by wizarding standards.

The Harry Potter series (idiot controversy aside) is one of the supreme children's literature creations of all time. Sadly, as of this writing, it is still one book shy of completion. Nevertheless, the series thus far is an incredible joy to read. My personal favorite thus far (by a nose) is Goblet of Fire, as the central book on which everything else hinges. This is, of course, yet another case of a book in a series that might not be on the list without the support of other books which are not.

Despite the publication of the first book in 1997, I was not allowed to begin reading the series while still living at home. This was a subject of much contention for years (you may find my definitive final word on the subject here), and ultimately I did not begin the first book until I moved out of the house during the summer after I graduated from high school (2002). It was probably, in fact, one of the first things I did. At the time, the fourth book was just coming out in paperback, but I only bought the first one to read and discover what all the fuss was about to see if I would want to continue the series.

To make a long story short, I did, and I rapidly acquired the remaining three. I read most of book two during the trip from Lubbock to Longview when I moved in at LeTourneau my freshman year. I read book three during Thanksgiving Break my freshman year. And I read book four during Spring Break my freshman year (at least the final half of it one sitting). Book five came out that summer, and a generous aunt (one of the few relatives I have who will tolerate the series . . . and, incidentally, who has actually bothered to read it) loaned me a copy. I finished it in three sittings while on vacation travelling about the state with my family. And, of course, book six came out just this summer, and just as I was casting about for the means to get my hands on it, my wonderful girlfriend informed me that she had bought it as my early birthday present. When it arrived I finished it in two sittings.

All that I need add to complete this brief history of myself and the Harry Potter series is that I have arrived on opening night to showings of the last two HP movies (the third was the best of the series, the fourth perhaps the worst). Trust me, people should be reading these books, but if they don't or won't . . . well, their loss.


The Great Train Robbery (Michael Crichton) - Lavish wealth and appalling poverty - and Edward Pierce easily navigates both worlds. Rich, handsome, and ingenious, he charms the city's most prominent citizens even as he plots the crime of the century - the daring theft of a fortune of gold. But even Pierce could not predict the consequences of an extraordinary robbery that targets the pride of England's industrial era: the mighty steam locomotive.

To the best of my recollection, I read this book in its entirety during one night in the lounge of Andy's suite at John Brown University. I had finished my first spring semester at LeTourneau, and I was spending a week at JBU with Andy while he took his finals in order to return to Colorado Springs with him. I got a lot read that week . . .

It is not uncommon for me to read large portions of Michael Crichton books at a single go. I recall reading hundreds of pages of Sphere without moving a muscle, and when I finally finished the book, one of my arms and both of my legs were asleep. The Great Train Robbery is quite simply the best "caper" story I've ever encountered, and it paints a very vivid and memorable picture of the seedy underbelly of Victorian London. I can't say for certain how much of the story is actual historical fact, but I know that a great deal of it is, and while I was reading it I certainly felt as though every word was true.


Arthur (Stephen R. Lawhead) - They called him unfit to rule, a lowborn, callow boy, Uther's bastard. But his coming bad been foretold in the songs of the bard Taliesin. And be had learned powerful secrets at the knee of the mystical sage Merlin. He was Arthur -- Pendragon of the Island of the Mighty -- who would rise to legendary greatness in a Britain torn by violence, greed, and war; who would usher in a glorious reign of peace and prosperity; and who would fall in a desperate attempt to save the one he loved more than life.

Well, well, another version of the Arthur legend has appeared on my list. Now there's a shock. I felt that Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle (an attempt at a more or less historically based retelling of the myth) got off to rather a slow start with Taliesin, the story of Merlin's father. The second book, Merlin, was considerably better, but still not perfect. The third book, though, totally blew me away. It's use of multiple first-person narrators to tell the story of Arthur's exciting reign is quite riveting. You might think that, with that opinion of book three I might have moved on to book four, Pendragon, by now. But I haven't due to a busy reading schedule. Also, I've heard that it's not as good as the others in the series . . . maybe I'm afraid that's true.


Many Dimensions (Charles Williams) - The book turns on the discovery of the magical Stone of Solomon, infinitely divisible, and through which one can move at will through space, time, and thought. Those who think they can manipulate the stone to serve their own ends, however, find to their horror that, as Jesus once ironically said, "they have their reward." While the story clearly deals with the extraordinary, through his humorous and loving depiction of his British characters Williams more deeply shows us the spiritual reality that lies inside the ordinary.

Charles Williams is the third and final Inkling on my list, and only with great difficulty would I be able to convince myself that he isn't the best. I feel that both Lewis and Tolkien themselves would agree with that assessment. I was introduced to Williams in the Inklings Only class I took during the fall semester of my sophomore year. We bought a collection of three of his novels in a single volume and were required to choose two to read. Of course, many of us read all three. Of those three, while I know that Wilson prefers the depth and profundity of Descent into Hell and perhaps others might prefer the epic good vs. evil themes of War in Heaven, my favorite is Many Dimensions, with a little of both of the above and an extremely exciting concept to boot.

To be continued . . .

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December 05, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VII


The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov) - Asimov's epic of Empire and the ebb and flow of history covers a span of several hundred years in the history of an ideal universal ruling organization. When the Galactic Empire began to decay and crumble, Hari Seldon and his band of psychohistorians planted a colony, the Foundation, on a remote border planet. The Foundation would incubate art, science, and technology, and form the nucleus of the Second Empire, thus shortening the Dark Age between empires from 10,000 years to only 1,000. The first section, Foundation traces the Foundation's embryonic development and the beginnings of its rise to power. In Foundation and Empire, a period of disruption transpires amid the death throes of the Galactic Empire, followed almost immediately by the sudden appearance of a powerful mutant force, known as "The Mule," that not even Hari Seldon could have predicted. Second Foundation describes the climactic search for Seldon's hidden Second Foundation undertaken separately by both The Mule and the desperate, reeling First Foundation.

I graduated from fantasy to science fiction, and hence to Asimov, somewhat late considering my predilection for the former. It was probably Star Wars that did it when I saw the trilogy for the first time in 1997, but I no longer remember. In any case, Asimov is certainly one of my favorite authors, and one of my most read. There is not a great deal of action in his novels . . . in fact, almost nothing seems to happen in some of them, despite their length. Nevertheless, I was always fascinated by them from start to finish.

Asimov is a master of plotting on a grand scale, and many of his books demonstrate this on three levels. Each book contains elements that are part of itself (obviously), elements which connect with the larger series (often trilogy) of which they are a part, and elements which fit into the grand scheme of "Asimov time" which spans something like 20,000 years of human history. His Foundation trilogy is a perfect example of this, and it employs a classic Asimov device. Each part is neatly divided into sub-parts so that really the entire massive saga seems like a collection of novellas more than anything else.

My favorite part of the trilogy is probably the third book, but it could hardly be a favorite without the context of the preceding two. That, plus the facts that the previous two are excellent books and the trilogy is available in a single-volume form made it a necessity to add to the list. The Foundation trilogy is undoubtedly one of the great masterpieces of sci-fi literature (although if you find that term to be an oxymoron, you might want to avoid it).


A Midsummer Night's Dream (William Shakespeare) - Three members of a love triangle (and a fourth who wants in) along with a troupe of rustic tradesmen with thespian delusions stumble into an enchanted forest on the eve of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and become the playthings of a group of mischievous, feuding fairies. Of course, love conquers all by the end, but some very strange events transpire along the way.

Shakespeare is another of my most read authors, and that made it extremely difficult to decide which of his plays ought to go on his list. I feel like such a poser to begin with by putting anything by Shakespeare at all, but I assure you that I do genuinely love the works of Shakespeare. I have read 25 of his plays, and over a dozen of those at least twice, and I'm looking earnestly for the time to complete the remaining 13.

My immediate problem was really whether to choose a comedy or a tragedy. Both are so different from each other that I had legitimate favorites in both camps that almost defied comparison. In the end, however, I decided that none of Shakespeare's plays has given me more joy than A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've probably read it at least five times, more than one of those aloud in a "reader's theater" setting. I also own the charming recent movie version, and have watched and enjoyed it several times (one of the few instances where a drastic change from Shakespeare's original setting, from Ancient Greece to 19th century Italy, genuinely works).

My favorite character to act, incidentally, is undoubtedly Bottom the Weaver, whose flamboyant, good-natured chutzpah make him one of the most endearing characters in all Shakespeare. On the one hand, he is obnoxiously proud and self-centered, but on the other, he is so charitable and guileless about it (not to mention comical) that he is almost impossible not to like.


The Eye of the World (Robert Jordan) - The peaceful villagers of Emond's Field pay little heed to rumors of war in the western lands until a savage attack by troll-like minions of the Dark One forces three young men to flee their home in the company of an Aes Sedai (a powerful female mage) as the Dark One's evil armies pursue. While a series of life-threatening encounters keep them constantly on the move, they are visited by terrible dreams that hint that they must soon confront a destiny which has its origins in the time known as The Breaking of the World.

Some may think this a strange choice, being disgusted with the the way Jordan has stretched out his saga to cover eleven massive books without yet being done. Personally, I am currently stalled out on book six, searching for a chance to proceed, and still enjoying the series for what it is. In any case, regardless of what some people may think about this series, they probably only think it because they liked it enough at the beginning to keep reading later. After all, if the first book had sucked, why would they have picked up the second? No matter how much later portions of the series may have jumped the shark (and I'm still enjoying it immensely at book six, personally), book one is an excellent read.

I'm noticing that I have given fantasy a great deal of space on this list, which should indicate how fond of it I have been in the past. The Eye of the World provides solid high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, and Jordan's world is enormous. I found his writing to contain an excellent mix of borrowed elements common to all fantasy and his own highly-original ideas. This series contains some fascinating elements which lead to exciting developments from the beginning of the first book. The Eye of the World, despite its length, is a very absorbing read, full of suspense, action, and some very unexpected twists. It is both satisfying by itself and an excellent primer for the later books.


City Boy (Herman Wouk) - This work about a "Bronx Tom Sawyer" spins the hilarious and often touching tale of Herbie Bookbinder, an urban kid, and his adventures, misadventures and wild escapades on the street, in school, in the countryside, always in pursuit of Lucille, a heartless redhead personifying all the girls who torment and fascinate pubescent lads of eleven.

I read City Boy twice in a single summer, directly after I had graduated from high school, and was highly entertained both times. Herbie's story is by turns nostalgically poignant, side-splittingly hilarious, and painfully suspenseful. And through it all, I was captivated by the rise and fall of Herbie's fortunes, participating vicariously in his adventures and misadventures. It's no wonder this book won the Pulitzer Prize. The grand money-making scheme he devises while at summer camp, the manner in which he carries it out (which occupies a significant portion of the story), and the ultimate result of the whole experience had me in stitches and on pins and needles at the same time. That may not sound very pleasant, but I assure you it was.


The Princess Bride (William Goldman) - Westley, handsome farm boy who risks death and much, much worse for the woman he loves; Inigo, the Spanish swordsman who lives only to avenge his father's death; Fezzik, the Turk, the gentlest giant ever to have uprooted a tree with his bare hands; Vizzini, the evil Sicilian, with a mind so keen he's foiled by his own perfect logic; Prince Humperdinck, the eviler ruler of Guilder, who has an insatiable thirst for war; Count Rugen, the evilest man of all, who thrives on the excruciating pain of others; Miracle Max, who can raise the dead (kind of); The Dread Pirate Roberts, supreme looter and plunderer of the high seas; and, of course, Buttercup, the princess bride, the most perfect, beautiful woman in the history of the world. From the Cliffs of Insanity through the Fire Swamp and down into the Zoo of Death, this incredible journey and brilliant tale is peppered with strange beasties monstrous and gentle, and memorable surprises both terrible and sublime.

Everyone's seen the movie, not so many have read the book. Yet I can assure everyone that the book is every bit as worthwhile (and in some ways more so) as its cinematic counterpart. The characters and situations of The Princess Bride are unforgettable, and hardly need explaining here. However, the most amazing aspect of the book is the way in which it operates as both the ultimate fairy tale and as a satire on all other fairy tales.

The author, William Goldman, pretends that the book is a condensation, a "good-parts version," of a much longer work by a fictional author named S. Morgenstern. Goldman constructs a very elaborate autobiographical portrait of the books impact on his own life (in much the same way I have done with some of these books, but longer and more developed) and maintains his fiction so thoroughly that I was completely taken in until I had finished the entire thing. The story is written in a charmingly tongue-in-cheek style, and Goldman interjects frequently with explanations and justifications regarding what portions of the unabridged version of the story he has removed and why he chose to remove them (interrupting the flow much as the grandfather and grandson do in the movie version). The total effect produces one of the most original and memorable reading experiences that I have run across.

To be continued . . .

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December 03, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part VI


Till We Have Faces (C. S. Lewis) - This is the timeless tale of two mortal princesses — one beautiful and one unattractive — and of the struggle between sacred and profane love. A reworking of the classical Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, it is the story of Orual, Psyche's embittered and ugly older sister, who possessively and harmfully loves Psyche. Much to Orual's frustrations, Psyche is loved by Cupid, the god of love himself, setting the troubled Orual on a path of moral development. Set against the backdrop of Glome, a barbaric, pre-Christian world, Orual's struggles are illuminated as she learns that we cannot understand the intent of the gods "till we have faces" and sincerity in our souls and selves.

C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of great books, and of course The Chronicles of Narnia were the favorites of my younger days and still rank very highly. Nevertheless, I consider this to be the best book Lewis ever wrote. It has a level of depth and maturity that his other fiction doesn't, and there is the added bonus of an extremely absorbing narrative which is naturally absent from his nonfiction theological works.

I've read this book three times now, always for a class, but always with great pleasure: first in about 9th grade (I think), second for the Inklings course I took during the fall of my sophomore year at LeTourneau, and most recently for a presentation and paper for my C. S. Lewis class. Each reading has provided me with a new angle of approach, and I am sure that they are many left to discover. Orual's story in part one is as exciting and suspenseful as anyone could wish for, and her epiphany in part two is one of Lewis's most emotionally and spiritually impacting passages, no matter how many times you've already read it.


Mila 18 (Leon Uris) - It was a time of crisis, a time of tragedy--and a time of transcendent courage and determination. This novel is set in the midst of the uprising that defied Nazi tyranny, as the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto boldly met Wehrmacht tanks with homemade weapons and bare fists in a heroic effort to counter continued deportations to death camps.

I first discovered Leon Uris when I read Exodus, his novel of the tumultuous founding of the nation of Israel. After that I couldn't get enough of his historical fiction for awhile. I read Armageddon (The Berlin Airlift), Mitla Pass (The Six-Day War), QB VII (A British court case related to Nazi war crimes), and Mila 18 (The Warsaw Ghetto during World War II). Uris has a fascinating manner of making his fictional characters completely genuine by not only developing their personalities and personal histories, but giving them a fleshed-out past that goes back for generations. It is not uncommon for the story to digress for 50 to 100 pages while we get a fascinating and compelling account of the lives of the main characters' parents and grandparents. This is particularly important because his best work is centered around the Jews, where heritage is crucial. Leon Uris, even before Fiddler on the Roof introduced me to Jewish life in tsarist Russia, pogroms and all.

Mila 18 is an astoundingly moving read, where we know from the outset that most or all of the characters are doomed. It may be morbid of me (although I don't think that's it), but I never get tired of stories which treat on the contrasting depravity of Nazi Germany and the courage and fortitude of their victims during the Holocaust.


The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) - In these connected, chronological short stories are recorded the chronicles of Earth's settlement of the fourth world from the sun. Mars is a place of hope, dreams and metaphor - of crystal pillars and fossil seas - where a fine dust settles on the great, empty cities of a silently destroyed civilization. It is here the invaders have come to despoil and commercialize, to grow and to learn - first a trickle, then a torrent, rushing from a world with no future toward a promise of tomorrow. The Earthman conquers Mars . . . and then is conquered by it, lulled by dangerous lies of comfort and familiarity, and enchanted by the lingering glamour of an ancient, mysterious native race.

Who cares if Bradbury writes of breathable air on Mars, an enormous and ancient telepathic civilization, or colonizing another planet beginning before the year 2000? That The Martian Chronicles has left the realm of science fiction and entered the realm of pure fantasy after several decades does not detract from the rich, deep quality of Bradbury's prose, or the power and fascination of his short stories. Fahrenheit 451 is the Bradbury book that everyone reads, but his best work, I think, is in his collections of short stories, most notably this one, The October Country and The Illustrated Man (not to ignore his beautiful novel Something Wicked This Way Comes).

Anyway, returning to the work at hand, the stories in this book embrace a broad range. There are funny stories, tragic stories, mystery and suspense stories, just plain weird stories . . . etc. The total effect produces a very satisfying and memorable experience, and I have revisited and even retold individual favorites from the collection a number of times.


A Wizard of Earthsea (Ursula K. LeGuin) - Ged was the greatest sorcerer in all Earthsea, but once he was called Sparrowhawk, a reckless youth, hungry for power and knowledge, who tampered with long-held secrets and loosed a terrible shadow upon the world. Sparrowhawk becomes apprentice to a Master Wizard; but impatience to learn faster takes him far from home to Roke Island, where he enters the School for Wizards. As a student of magic, Sparrowhawk exceeds his years in accomplishment, but pride and jealousy drive the boy to try certain dangerous powers too soon. This is the tale of his testing, how he mastered the mighty words of power, tamed an ancient dragon, and crossed death's threshold to restore the balance.

I am quoted as having once said: "There are women who can write [high fantasy] and I'm sure I can think of one if I sit here long enough." The quote arose from a discussion of a particularly horrible fantasy short story I had been reading, by a female author, in which the main character (among other things) wandered around firing a longbow "from the hip." That's still one of the most asinine things I've ever seen in print, but it doesn't forgive the fact that I sat there for quite some time and didn't immediately come up with Ursula K. LeGuin, a shining beacon of the genre.

I snagged A Wizard of Earthsea on a whim from a hole-in-the-wall used bookstore in Antigua, Guatemala for Q19 (slightly less than $3 at the time), and proceeded to devour it that afternoon. The style and flow of LeGuin's writing is indescribably serene and beautiful. The world of her Earthsea series is a fascinating one, consisting of the Archipelago, hundreds of islands of all sizes scattered across thousands of miles and populated by all manner of peoples and cultures (and some dragons). There are no epic journeys by land in Earthsea, for there are no land masses large enough. Virtually all travel is by sea.

The plot of A Wizard of Earthsea also captivated me. I was often frustrated during The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings because Gandalf appears out of nowhere with no background or history, and often wanders away on dark and mysterious errands which the reader isn't allowed to know about. LeGuin's book is the exact opposite of this. The entire story follows the wizard character through his early life and training and on to his first great quest: to track and defeat the shadow he himself unleashed.

And this is only the first of six Earthsea books (although two had not yet been published when I discovered the series). LeGuin's other work is worth checking out as well, although I haven't read nearly all of it. Some of her books can be a bit hard to find, and others I just haven't gotten around to reading yet. Her science fiction is excellent, and her book Rocannon's World is a close second behind A Wizard of Earthsea.


The Icarus Hunt (Timothy Zahn) - Independent space shipper (smuggler) Jordan McKell accepts a contract to deliver a sealed cargo to Earth aboard a ship of unknown origin and dubious quality. After the suspicious death of a crew member and several attempts to "acquire" his cargo, McKell realizes that he has become the center of a conspiracy that pits him against the powerful race of aliens who control galactic trade and aspire to much more. With everyone in the galaxy looking for the Icarus, and an unknown saboteur amongst the crew, McKell begins to suspect that whatever he is caring may have the power to change the course of human history.

The Icarus Hunt is my self-indulgent (okay, who am I kidding? the whole list is self-indulgent) nod in the direction of pulpy, action-packed, contemporary science fiction. I read it during the first summer (of two) that I spent in Colorado Springs with my good friend Andy Winger . . . in fact, we read it concurrently, a chunk at a time, and had a grand time trying to figure out all of its twists and turns along the way.

Timothy Zahn is a fantastic author, and I first discovered him through the Star Wars books he had written (five at the time, if memory serves). I have since read eight or nine of his non-Star Wars books, with a few more waiting in the wings. No other sci-fi author that I have encountered has come up with more different original ideas than Zahn has. Almost every one of his books begins from scratch with a new vision of the galaxy. Once it was a world where all humans had extraordinary telekinetic powers . . . until the age of 12. Another time it was a black hole which emitted quantum particles that compel people to act ethically. A third book has humans as the late-comers to interstellar travel relegated to colonizing the few low-resource planets left . . . only to find themselves in possession of one that contains priceless ancient technologies buried beneath its surface.

But I digress. The Icarus Hunt is by far my favorite of Zahn's books, obviously, and I've made a number of people read it since I first completed it. Intricate plot twists fly successively thicker and faster as the story builds to a fever pitch, culminating in a climax which does not disappoint. With all this going for it, plus excellent characters and fun writing, this book was a must for my list.

To be continued . . .

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December 01, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part V


Cheaper by the Dozen (Ernestine G. Carey & Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.) - No growing pains have ever been more hilarious than those suffered loudly by the riotous Gilbreth clan. First, there are a dozen red-haired, freckle-faced kids to contend with. Then there's Dad, a famous efficiency expert who believes a family can be run just like a factory. And there's Mother, his partner in everything except discipline. How they all survive such escapades as forgetting Frank, Jr., in a roadside restaurant, going on a first date with Dad in the backseat, or having their tonsils removed en masse will keep you in stitches.

Seriously, this book will make you laugh. It's hilarious. Before there was the crappy movie starring Steve Martin and Hillary Duff and a crappy sequel to said crappy movie, there was the great original. This book provides another example of my affinity for anecdotal-type stories . . . especially true ones (although so long as its a good story, I don't really care about veracity so much). I honestly can't say whether members of large families would find it humorous or not, but I know that I (not having an enormous family, but being familiar with several) do. And, to the best of my knowledge this is an accurate portrayal of the environment surrounding such . . . ummm . . . units. I'm trying to be tactful here, because I am marrying into a large family. Suffice to say, some of the stories in this book are reminiscent of stories my fiancée has related from her youth. However, let me assure the world that it is no insult to anyone to be compared to the charming Gilbreths.


The Flames of Rome (Paul L. Maier) - The sensuality and excesses of first-century Rome, the treacherous and deadly ploys of imperial politics, the shocking persecution of early Christians by a power-mad emperor - Maier faithfully reconstructs the dramatic conflicts preceding and following the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64 through the experiences of a family of Roman nobility caught up in the political and religious clashes of the world's capital. The family of Flavius Sabinus, mayor of Rome under Nero, was among the first crucial converts to Christianity, and this novel recounts "the rest of the story" following the book of Acts.

This is probably the only book on my list that might fall into the category of "contemporary Christian fiction," and I am hesitant to call it that because of all of the negative connotations associated with that genre. In other words, I don't like to say that that is what this is, because this actually doesn't suck. I really need to go back and reread it in light of some of my Bible classes (most notably "Social Backgrounds of the New Testament") and in light of Historiography, but to the best of my rememberance it does not fall prey to any of the glaring fallacies often common to religious historical fiction.

Even if it does, and I just don't remember, it is so compellingly written that it easily falls into the realm of perennial classics like Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis . . . and I actually prefer it to both of those, personally. This was probably the book that first truly interested me in the history of the Roman Empire, and it gave me a solid grasp on the details of Nero's reign. It is both exciting and moving, and I highly recommend it.


Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell) - An epic, romanticized story about the American Civil War from the point of view of the Confederacy. In particular it is the story of Scarlett O'Hara, a headstrong Southern belle who survives the hardships of the war and afterwards manages to establish a successful business by capitalizing on the struggle to rebuild the South. Throughout the book she is motivated by her unfulfilled love for Ashley Wilkes, an honorable man who is happily married. More than this, though, it is a sweeping story of tangled passions and the rare courage of a group of people in Atlanta during and after the Civil War.

Speaking of Historiography, Gone With the Wind is not a book that I enjoy because it's good or accurate history (it's not), but because it's a good story, well-written, and a cultural icon. Gone With the Wind may not be solid history, but it is very solid myth. Granted, I didn't realize this when I first read it, but I think it was for that reason that it resonated with me. I would probably hesitate to call it literature per se, but it is definitely a classic work of the South and well worth reading by any who enjoy things from that region.

For me, Gone With the Wind (more than any of the other highly romanticized Southern works of its type) transcends the petty prejudices and jaundiced perspectives of history that skew lesser works beyond the tolerance of a modern audience. This is because it is about a particular character that can be identified with universally. Scarlett O'Hara is not a lost vision of perfection from the past, but strong survivor in the present who maintains a hope for the future right up until the final lines of the book. For that reason, I think the novel has survived and will continue to survive as a classic favorite in a way that a work like, say, The Clansman could never hope to match.


Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë) - Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre none the less emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity. How she takes up the post of governess at Thornfield Hall, meets and loves Mr Rochester and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage are elements in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than that traditionally accorded to her sex in Victorian society.

Almost the only kind of romance novel (of the love story type) that I read and enjoy is the kind which has the word "Gothic" in front of it as a modifier. Jane Eyre is enthralling and creepy in a way peculiar to the great Victorian authors, with their familiarity with death, insanity, and cruelty. Sometimes they seem melancholy even when they and their characters are most happy and at peace. Jane herself is among the most endearing narrators in literature, and her story is almost impossible to stop reading. I read both this and the next book for school during the same year, and I remember both of them providing me with hours of quiet bliss over the course of entire afternoons and evenings during which I barely shifted from my bed or the couch.


David Copperfield (Charles Dickens) - Fervently embraces the comic delights, tender warmth, and tragic horrors of childhood, it is a classic tale of growing up, the enchanting story of an orphan discovering life and love in an indifferent adult world. Persecuted by his wrathful stepfather, Mr. Murdstone; deceived by his boyhood idol, the callous, charming Steerforth; driven into mortal combat with the sniveling clerk Uriah Heep; and hurled, pell-mell, into a blizzard of infatuation with the adorably dim-witted Dora, he survives the worst--and the best--with inimitable style, his bafflement turning to self-awareness and his heart growing ever more disciplined and true.

Speaking of great Victorian works and endearing narrators, David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens book. It is very long, and I very much wished (when I read it) that it was a good deal longer. I was completely drawn in by the experiences of the main character . . . indeed by all of the characters. Dickens, of course, has a special flair for creating iconic and memorable personalities to populate his thick novels. Like Jane Eyre, and a few of the other books I have discussed, I have a soft spot for David Copperfield partially because it is a coming-of-age story. And its length makes it something I can really sink my teeth into (as with three of the other four books I just discussed). Long can be bad . . . but often it's really good.

To be continued . . .

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November 28, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part IV


Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Meet the March sisters: talented and tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, shy Beth, and temperamental Amy . . . This book presents a lively portrait of their joys, hardships, and adventures as they grow up in Civil War New England, separated by the war from their father and beloved mother, "Marmee." Jo searches for her writer's voice . . . Meg prepares for marriage and a family . . . Beth reaches out to the less fortunate, tragically . . . and Amy travels to Europe to become a painter.

Yeah, yeah . . . I know what you're probably thinking. At least, I know what certain other people have said when I have mentioned off-hand that this is one of my favorite books. It's been quite some time since I last read it, and I daresay it's probably very sappy indeed in some way. But that doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed the book, its characters, its anecdotal nature, and overarching plot . . . And the autobiographical element of the thing always fascinated me. It's a good, long, uplifting sort of a read. And it's not as though I put up with things that attempt to shove gratuitous warm fuzzies off on one. This is a good book, regardless.


The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) - There are 60 mysteries starring the legendary Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world's best-known detective, all chronicled by the unassuming Dr. John Watson, former military surgeon. Watson is introduced to Holmes's eccentricities as well as his uncanny ability to deduce information about his fellow beings and a lifelong literary friendship is born. Residing together at 221B Baker Street, they collaborate in solving and recording mystery after mystery in Victorian London.

I hardly know where to begin with Sherlock Holmes . . . absolutely one of my favorite literary idols of all time. I vividly remember the first Holmes story I ever heard: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which was read aloud to me in 4th grade at CAG by Mr. Ulrich. That story stills sends chills up and down my spine. It was sometime later, after I had read several more of his adventures here and there, that I stumbled across an enormous red tome in the CAG library, with a faded "Complete Sherlock Holmes" inscribed on the tattered spine. I took it home with me and stayed up most of the night reading A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories I liked (and still like) best.

I can remember lots of them . . . and there are many more I can't remember. That's grand, as far as I'm concerned, since it means that I can go back and reread them someday. Most of my favorites are in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, where so many unique things happen: vampires, a case told in the third-person, and the only case related by Holmes himself. But His Last Bow, with Holmes as a spy during World War I, is grand as well. And, of course, I still love all of the earlier collections that set up the character, kill him off, and bring him back again: The Adventures, The Memoirs (with the climactic "Final Problem"), and The Return.

It would be impossible to pick a single Sherlock Holmes story or collection . . . it has to be the whole thing: every word ever written about the character by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a magnificent body of work.


The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - The Once and Future King defies classification, encompassing poetry and farce, comedy and tragedy -and sudden flights of schoolboy humor. White's "footnote to Malory" (his own phrase) resulted in the last major retelling of the Arthurian cycle of legends. This is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot, of Merlyn and Guinevere, of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad.

I was initially sucked into the work by the laugh-out-loud look at medieval Britain in The Sword in the Stone, quite on par with, or better than, Connecticut Yankee. But, more than just the humor, the really captivating element of what I consider to be the quintessential version of the Arthur legend (this is it for me), is the tragic, bittersweet failure of Arthur's dream. The Once and Future King, despite its often tongue-in-cheek style captures the humanity of its characters in a way the dry prose of Malory, or high, cold verse of Tennyson never could. What makes the tragedy of Arthur's fate (along with Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest) is that the story didn't have to turn out that way but for a series of very slight, very understandable, very human errors. And we sit and read and watch disaster unfold before us . . . but not without the hope of ultimate redemption, too. It is masterfully, beautifully done.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) - From 1902 until 1919 the Nolans live in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.

I guess I'm just a sucker for coming-of-age stories . . . in fact, I know I am. Here's another book that I remember reading largely in the space of a long night (or perhaps two). I remember just enough about it to want to read it again to refresh my memory. Francie Nolan, as I recall, is a hero the reader can really root for with no trouble, and her story (and that of her family) fascinated me. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides one of those rare, very clear glimpses into a world that is completely different from any that I've experienced, and it also provided me with an early glimpse of what it is like to look back on childhood at the cusp of adulthood. For that reason alone, I ought to reread it very soon.


The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) -
"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone."

With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavor is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.

The Dark is Rising is actuall book two of a five-book series, but it mostly stands alone. It introduces a completely different set of characters from book one, and the two sets join forces in book three and proceed from there. The series draws very heavily on Welsh and Celtic elements, and takes place almost entirely in that small area of Great Britain. This was, obviously, my favorite of the five (but they're all pretty good). The material Cooper draws on is rich and satisfying, and she knows how to spin a real nail-biter . . . excellent writing. I'll admit that the book loses a little if one doesn't read the others in the series, but rules are rules, and I could only pick one of them. It's still a compelling read.

To be continued . . .

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November 22, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part III


Watership Down (Richard Adams) - Set in the once idyllic rural landscape of the south of England, this is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival. An epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community. Led by the doughty Hazel and his oracular friend Fiver, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing dangers posed by predators, hostile warrens, and worse, to a mysterious promised land known to them only as Watership Down. From their travails, they forge a more perfect society, made stronger by the vision that drives them.

When I was (I think) 13, almost 14, I heard of this book and decided to read it, but didn't find a copy handy right away. That summer we visited an old lady friend of my parents' who lived in Waco, and stayed in her large, ancient house. It was rather a creepy house, deathly silent but for the creaking noises made by the wooden floor when we walked around in it. It was the sort of house I could spend a great deal of time carefully exploring, and still be certain of missing some secret panel or passageway, but the almost total lack of air conditioning made one too lethargic for exploring.

In one of the guest bedrooms, however, I discovered a copy of Watership Down: a bulky, hardcover version without the dust jacket. Everyone thought I was reading a book about submarines as I carted it around with me to restaurants, church potlucks, and the like. My parents always have a lot of visiting to get done in Waco, and it has always been my philosophy to bring along a hefty chunk of "boredom insurance" in the hopes of finding a quiet corner to tuck myself into.

Well, as immersed as I was in the story of Watership Down (which offers an unforgettable portrait of Adams's made-up rabbit culture, including a language and complex folklore, in addition to page-turning excitement), between one thing and another I didn't quite finish the book before we had to leave. I was terribly disappointed, but I received a shiny new paperback copy for my birthday not long after, and all was well. When the sequel, an anthology entitled Tales from Watership Down, came out a few years later, I snapped it up and devoured it, too. These books are not to be missed.


The Rescuers (Margery Sharp) - The Prisoners' Aid Society, run entirely by mice, strives to help cheer and aid a variety of human prisoners held around the world. When the society learns that a Norwegian poet has been wrongly imprisoned in the legendary (and much feared) Black Castle, home to a number of terrible dangers (including the dreaded Mameluke, a monstrous cat belonging to the prison warden), the mice waste no time in formulating a plan for his release. Bernard, a stolid brown mouse, is dispatched to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a white mouse who has always lived in the lap of luxury. If Bernard can convince Miss Bianca to locate a brave Norwegian rodent for their cause, the prisoner may stand a chance. Being a bit of a spoiled pet, Miss Bianca initially shies away from Bernard's pleas, but his good heart and her better nature prevail and soon she too is involved in the world of intrigue and heroic rescues.

The Rescuers and its eight sequels are, much to my dismay, long out of print, and I had a heck of a time even finding a picture of the cover. For all I know, they may have already been out of print when I first checked them out from the CAG library and read them years ago. This is a shame because any one of the first three (which are the only ones our library had, and are still the only ones I've read) could eviscerate either Disney animated version in a fair fight. The first book remains my favorite for a variety of reasons. The mission undertaken by Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Nils is just so ridiculously impossible at the outset that their ultimate success is all the more exhilerating in the end.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) - Vibrates with slapstick comedy and serious social commentary. While Hank Morgan, Twain's time-displaced Yankee traveler, keeps up a steady stream of flippancies, founding the first tabloid, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, and organizing a game of baseball between armor-clad knights, he also keeps up a steady commentary on the social mores of King Arthur's court, criticizing the hereditary social classes and state church still strong in the Victorian England of Twain's own day, and championing women's suffrage and union labor organization.

This may seem like a bit of an odd pick to some, considering Twain's other great works. Huck Finn is, of course, widely regarded as his best (and by some as the best) novel. Personally, my difficulty was more in deciding between this one and Tom Sawyer, and in the end I may not be able to adequately justify why, with my love of the South and Southern literature, I picked a book about a Yankee set in legendary Arthurian Britain. My fascination with Arthurian legend aside, it probably boils down to the fact that my favorite element of Twain is his humor, and this is (in my opinion) by far his funniest book. Connecticut Yankee made me laugh. A lot. And at this point I'd probably have to re-read it in order to make my analysis any deeper than that.


And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - Ten complete strangers, apparently with nothing in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon. Once there, all of them are accused of murder and sentenced to die. One by one the members of the party are killed off, and tension mounts as, cut off from the mainland, the dwindling survivors realize that the killer must be one of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've actually read more books by Agatha Christie than by any other single author (a fact which quite surprised me when I discovered it). I never got into any of her detectives except Hercule Poirot, and I read everyone of his mysteries I could lay my hands on. I remember burrowing my way through a thick tome of five Poirot mysteries at a fairly young age, lugging it around everywhere I went.

Christie has the uncanny ability of throwing me so totally off the scent in her mysteries that, not only is the killer not the most likely suspect, they are not even the least likely suspect. With almost no exceptions, Christie reveals the killer to have been the one character who was not a suspect at all, who hadn't even entered into your reckoning when you formed your list. I remember one mystery where the murderer was the policeman investigating the case, and another where the murderer was the person narrating the story.

Neither of those refers to this particular book, which is one of perhaps three non-Poirot Christie's that I have read. It does not feature any of her regular detective characters, or any detective at all for that matter. Relying more on suspense than investigation to keep the reader glued, the ending is, of course, a complete surprise. I've seen a couple of movie versions and have been thoroughly disgusted both times with the adaptation. Moviemakers can be such weenies sometimes, and in this case seem thoroughly incapable of following the original plot through to reach Christie's brilliant, dark ending.


King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard) - Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend. At the end of a perilous journey they reach an unknown land cut off from the world and inhabited by a lost civilization which stands on the brink of savage civil war, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who dares to venture near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon.

King Solomon's Mines stands out in my mind as the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, rip-roaring adventure novel I have ever read. I bought it on a whim from a tiny bookstore in a mall in Guatemala and devoured it shortly thereafter. This is the quintessential African adventure of the British Imperialist period. It has pretty much everything: danger, suspense, men being ripped in half by stampeding elephants, bizarre encounters with the natives, an epic, day-long battle with tens of thousands of warriors savaging each other in hand-to-hand combat, our mighty, larger-than-life heroes emerging victorious, bathed in blood, wealth beyond measure surrounded by booby-traps . . . I'm telling you, it's all in here. Just thinking about that battle scene makes me want to go read the whole thing again.

To be continued . . .

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November 19, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part II


Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O'Brian) - There's something very strange about the rats living under the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. But Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick child, is in dire straits and must turn to these exceptional creatures for assistance. Soon she finds herself flying on the back of a crow, slipping sleeping powder into a ferocious cat's dinner dish, and helping 108 brilliant, laboratory-enhanced rats escape to a utopian civilization of their own design, no longer to live "on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back."

Genius lab rats who plot and scheme and build utopias . . . this concept is so much fun! This was one of the first books I read where the story kept intriguing details hidden from the reader for a time while dropping tantalizing hints about them. Sometimes the revelation doesn't happen (a nearly unforgivable sin, if done improperly), and sometimes it's just underwhelming (which is even worse). In this case, though, I loved the backstory of the rats of NIMH. The rest of the book generated a good deal of tension and suspense as well, and I remember it being a very exciting read. My most vivid memory is of an escape through air ducts, and of the horror of uncertainty as to the fate of those who were swept away by the rush of blowing air. Air ducts . . . brrr . . .


Matilda (Roald Dahl) - At age five-and-a-half, Matilda is knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Once she begins school, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the school principal, Mrs. ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing monster of a woman who now flings children instead. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.

To my thinking, it would simply be a crime not to have a book by Roald Dahl on this list. All of his books are an absolute joy to read. I have fond memories, for instance, of the time when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to my brothers in a single sitting because they didn't want me to stop. There was a bit of a struggle as to which one to pick . . . I love so many of his (especially the second half of his autobiography, entitled Going Solo).

In the end, though, I picked the book about a bookworm who scores some sweet, sweet revenge on the Philistines in her life. It just doesn't get any better than that. I received this book as a present for my 13th birthday, a very memorable occasion which also netted me a week-long trip State-side (beginning and ending the journey with a plane ride was only part of the joy of the experience, at the time). There are lots of memorable parts in Matilda, most involving The Trunchbull and her punishment system. I recall a small girl whirled about by her hair and flung a few hundred yards . . . A small boy forced to eat an entire enormous chocolate cake in front of the whole school until he nearly splits open . . . And, of course, the hilarity that results from a pitcher of water, telekinesis, and a common garden newt.


The Land I Lost (Huynh Quang Nhuong) - "The land I love was lost to me forever. These stories are my memories." Huynh Quang Nhuong grew up in the highlands of Vietnam, next to the jungle teeming with wildlife. Encounters with tigers, wild hogs, and deadly snakes were as much a part of his life as tending the rice fields while on the back of his pet water buffalo, Tank. Here are fifteen tales that will transport you into a world of lush beauty and terrible danger -- and a way of life that is gone forever.

I can't for the life of me remember why this book affected me as much as it did. The stories are fascinating, often involving strange and dangerous encounters with the jungle. Some are funny, some are intense, some are tragic, but all are quite poignant. The cumulative effect is both moving and lasting. I can only clearly remember fragments about snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, and water buffalo, as well as snatches about the devastating effects of war. As I consider further, I think it was the bittersweet quality of the book which touched me the most. It is an excellent read, all the more so because the stories are true.


To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - An enrapturing coming-of-age story told from the point of view of six-year-old Scout Finch. Growing up in pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the transformations that take place in their small town during a controversial trial in which her lawyer father, Atticus, agrees to defend a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century, and so much of what makes up a Southern childhood, without over-glorifying them.

This is one of those few books that I can (and do) pick up at random and read from cover to cover just because I happen to spot it sitting on the shelf. If I had to pick a single favorite, it would be a very strong contender. I think I first read it in sixth grade, and I've re-read it in whole or in part several dozen times since then (one of very few books I've re-read at all). I have also, through sheer force of will, browbeaten several people into picking it up and reading it.

Because it has been so ubiquitous for several years, I'd have a hard time attaching specific memories to it. And almost every scene in the book is memorable . . . I couldn't pick just a few. I am, however, fairly certain of one thing: To Kill a Mockingbird is the most prominent factor in my affinity for Southern history, literature, and culture. That makes it also responsible for my paper topic in Intellectual History and for my specially requested independent study in Southern History next semester. It is responsible for a few other books on this list, as well. And, in all likelihood, it will one day have been responsible for what I study in graduate school. How's that for influential?


The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) - When shy Mole climbs out of his hole and into the fresh spring air, he meets Ratty. The two set off for a day on the river, and thus begins this classic tale of deep friendship and adventure as Mole, Rat, and Badger try to reform their rather wild friend, Mr. Toad (of Toad Hall). When Toad's obssession with motor cars and reckless driving land him in prison, Toad Hall is taken over by fiendish weasels and the four friends face the complications of a daring prison break and a climactic battle for the mansion in the most thrilling adventure of all.

The Wind in the Willows glows with a special luminescence all its own. Its characters are sheer magic, and their various adventures are enchanting as well as entertaining. I have many emotions connected to specific scenes: the relief of Mole stumbling into Badger's den when he is lost in the forest, the excitement of Toad's wild escape from prison, the serenity of a day on the river with Rat, and the sheer exhiliration of the storming of Toad Hall. None of these scenes, however, equal the transcendent awe of Mole and Rat's unexplained encounter with the pipe-playing, God-like being they meet one night. This powerful scene, perhaps even more than anything in C. S. Lewis, is the strongest and most lasting image I possess of an encounter with Deity. I have re-read that one portion of the book more times than I remember.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 16, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part I


The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - In ancient times Sauron, The Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was lost, and fell, by chance, into the hands of the hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard, Merry, Pippin, and Sam, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, Boromir of Gondor, and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider. Together they will journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom

I discovered the trilogy as a 4th grader in late '93. Already a fan of Narnia since '88 or '89, I reached Fellowship through The Hobbit, based on the awed recommendations of a few classmates. The latter I re-read over a dozen times (several of them nearly consecutively), to the point where my mother asked whether I shouldn't try something new for a change. It was, in some small part, that encouragement not to re-read the same few books over and over again that prompted me to begin keeping a record, and I do not often re-read entire books these days.

As for the trilogy, its impact on me was profound for many years, as it fueled and drove my search for fantasy and science fiction that could equal the joy I derived from reading it. Narnia alone probably could not have sustained my interest in fantasy, but the discovery of Middle Earth made my continued interest a certainty. I have very vivid memories of reading those frightening opening chapters aloud to my younger brothers by the dim glow of a flickering nightlight as we shivered in the bottom bunk, cut off from the rest of the room by walls of blankets draped over the top bunk. I remember reading an enormous chunk of the trilogy perched in various trees, and ignoring cries of "Un mono! (A monkey!)" from below. Additionally, the first time I read The Return of the King, I listened to a George Gershwin CD over and over and over. "Rhapsody in Blue" now forever brings to mind the spectacle of Frodo and Sam toiling wearily up the slopes of Mount Doom.

When word of a new movie version began to circulate, I was, of course, very excited. But by then the full peak of my Hobbitmania had come and gone, and it was my younger brother Micah who got caught up in the magic of the thing most violently. I have experiencing vicariously his enthusiasm for the subject in addition to my own. I am quite pleased that Lord of the Rings was the first of these that appears on my Booklist, because this gives me the chance to get it out of the way up front. Yes, it is on my list. Moving on . . .


The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) - This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a chronically bored ten-year-old who comes home one afternoon to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Driving through the tollbooth's gates in his toy car, Milo journeys into The Lands Beyond with the companions he finds along the way: the watchdog, Tock, and the foolish but lovable Humbug. Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked "Which," gives Milo the impossible mission of rescuing the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air in the midst of the dreaded Mountains of Ignorance and restoring them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. With his faithful companions in tow, he sets out to accomplish the task, visiting places like the Word Market in Dictionopolis, and encountering colorful characters like King Azaz the Unabridged along the way.

For sheer fun and frivolity, Tollbooth is hard to beat. This book was not directly responsible for my love of learning, perhaps, but it certainly shows how much cooler knowledge is than ignorance, low culture theory notwithstanding. Tollbooth is a surefire cure for boredom, and contains quite a few good laughs as well. The characters and situations are unforgettable (my favorite scene was always Milo's encounter with the Mathemagician, but really, it's all pretty great). Everyone should have this read once before they hit middle school, again before high school, before college, and at least once after.


A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L'Engle) - World-renowned physicist Dr. Murray is experimenting with tesseracts (fifth-dimension travel) when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Several months later, his children - warm, awkward Meg and gifted, eccentric Charles Wallace - have still had no news of their father. Then, quite suddenly, they and their neighbor, Calvin O`Keefe, embark on a perilous quest to other worlds to find their father. Guided by three celestial beings - Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - they must survive a myriad of unexpected dangers to reunite their family.

A bit of an oddity, this one. It baffled and intrigued me when I was younger, trying to wrap my brain around fifth dimensions and travel by tesseract. This book may well have laid a few foundations of my anti-Utopian cynicism. Or maybe not. The story isn't strictly science fiction, but it is not fantasy either. This particular blend of the two is unique (as far as I know) to L'Engle and Ursula K. Leguin. However, what really stand out in my memory are the characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Charles Wallace, Meg . . . very special, and with a life of their own.

I remember especially images of a planet where everyone is identical, performing the same actions at the same time . . . children bouncing balls in unison, mothers making identical dinners, etc. I also remember the frustrating sensation of feeling so very close to knowing just how tesseracts work, but not quite getting it. Wrinkle is the first in a series of four stand-alones: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly-Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. That last stars the least developed characters in the series, the blonde Murray twins, rather than the usual cast, as they wind up in the days of the antedeluvian patriarchs after messing with one of their mother's experiments.


The Gammage Cup (Carol Kendall) - Muggles is an ordinary Minnipin living in Slipper-on-the-Water as generations of Minnipins have ever since their great leader Gammage led them to this valley. But one morning, Muggles awakes to fires on the distant mountains and knows that her life is about to change dramatically. The only people who believe Muggles' story are Gummy the poet, Walter the Earl, Curley Green and Mingy, all outcasts themselves. They are not like other Minnipins--they speak their mind, they wear different colors, and they question rules. When they try to convince the rest of the town that danger is lurking, they are banished from the village. In a peaceful knoll up the river, the unlikely friends rejoice in their newfound freedom and begin a new life. But the presence of the ancient enemy of Minnipins cannot be ignored, and this group of exiles must fight to protect the very people who cast them out.

In addition to feeding the aforementioned appetite for good fantasy with a fun plot, great characters and situations, plenty of action, and a very satisfying conclusion, The Gammage Cup undoubtedly appealed to my disgust with conformity to mindless societal conventions. Like the heroes of the story, I prefer to express myself however I please, and I hate falling in line just because "it's the way things work." If something doesn't make sense to me, I openly disagree, or just try to ignore it. Of course, ridicule is usually the best outcome I can hope for in such cases. All that aside, this is a fantastic book.

There are almost too many memories to describe: the fun use of colors, the pretentious town leaders who share a common ancestry with a ridiculously lucky buffoon, the nail-biting, eerie tension of the climax, and the exhiliration of restoration to a better community . . . The only tangible memory, however, that I seem to be able to call forth in relation to my reading of it, is an auditory one: "WEEK WEEK WEEK!" (as a cry of fear and retreat).


The Second Mrs. Giaconda (E.L. Konigsburg) - Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist of his time . . . Salai, a wayward apprentice with a larcenous heart and an aversion to the truth . . . Beatrice d'Este, the young wife of the Duke of Milan, whose plain face belies her beautiful soul; could the complex ways these three lives intertwine hold the clue to the most famous -- and puzzling -- painting of all time? Why did da Vinci lavish three years on a painting of the second wife of an unimportant merchant when all the nobles of Europe were begging for a portrait by his hand?

I love historical fiction . . . probably more than I love actual history. And this story about (partially) the life of Leonardo da Vinci affected me very deeply for some reason. I was moved by it, and I'm really not sure why. It wasn't the first book to have done so by any means. Black Beauty caused me to weep at the tender age of . . . probably seven or so. Where the Red Fern Grows has brought me to tears on multiple occasions (blasted animal stories . . . they always suffer and die in the end, you know). Anyway, Mrs. Giaconda inspired me to a brief fascination with da Vinci, although an actual biography which I read shortly thereafter bored me terribly after the inspiration of this (partially) fictional work.

I prescribe this book as the cure for anyone who has been subjected to How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci . . . because, really you shouldn't be hating the great Leonardo. He really was an incredible genius, you know. This book is the first, but not the last, of these that I read as part of a school assignment. That was during the glorious days of Sonlight homeschool curriculum, which I used for 7th through 10th grade (beginning shortly after I began the Booklist). Sonlight is a literature-based curriculum, and it had me reading upwards of 70 books a year (most of the highest caliber) as I studied literature and history. Their catalogue, which I devoured every year as it came out, read almost like a glowing combination of my favorites and my to-reads.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 15, 2005

Reflections on 1000 Books

Tonight is something of a momentous occasion for me. It is a night that I have been anticipating for over nine years, and that I originally expected to arrive four or five years ago. On July 1st, 1996, when I was 12 years old (nearly two months shy of 13) and about to enter 7th grade, I set out for the umpteenth time to see how quickly I could read The Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.

Before I was even halfway done with them, I had already decided to see how many fantasy books in general I could read over the course of one month. And shortly after that, I just decided that I'd keep a record of every book I read, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, from then until the end of time. I've kept a "Booklist" in a Microsoft Excel or Works spreadsheet ever since (okay, actually I started in Word, but my dad recommended the switch, then helped me make it, before the first year was out).

For the past nine years I've celebrated the New Year twice. As January 1st approaches, I enjoy the Christmas holiday, consider what I have accomplished in the past year, and think about what the next 365 days will bring. As July 1st approaches, I begin to read furiously (I can generally do that in the midst of the summer with no trouble) so that I will have as many books as possible "logged" for that year of reading. I take a look at my reading progress for the past year, and resolve to read even more next year. Usually I have my eye on a number of books that I'd like to have read by then, as well. The tradition changes the way my entire midsummer works.

Tonight, November 15th, 2005, at age 22 and well into my senior year of college, I completed The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which is the thousandth book on my list (specially selected from half a dozen candidates to fill that particular role). I have a vague idea that this was the number I was aiming at back in '96. I have no idea what I intended to do once I'd reached it . . . I think I just wanted to see how fast I could get there. Well, now I know. But I've been reading fewer books every year, and so presumably I couldn't do it that fast again.

Anyway, I know what to do with it now: Tuck it away and set out for the second thousand. Maybe I'll see how long it takes me to catch up to the present year AD or something. Then, at least, I'd have some kind of representation in terms of reading material for every year since the time of Christ. Because if there's one thing I've realized with the completion of every book I've ever read, it's the fact of how many I haven't. No one warned me, at the tender age of four when I first began to read, or at any point after that, that reading is a Lernean hydra. You can't read a book without having thirty you haven't read thrust rudely into your conscious awareness.

This may come as a nasty shock to Rachel, who earlier wondered aloud whether, perhaps, I might be able to "stop" now, but as far as I'm concerned, I'll never be well-read, but I'll always be trying to be.

Meanwhile, now that I have reached the magic number 1000, and found it to be (as I have suspected for quite some time now) inadequate even as a bare beginning, I can at least launch a special project here on my blog which I have been planning ever since the arrival of the thousandth book became a tangible reality rather than a mere concept. Beginning very soon and continuing over the course of the next few weeks, I will post a listing of my 50 favorite books (the top 5%) off of my Booklist in small, bite-size chunks.

The list has been mostly assembled (though, of course, always subject to change) for some time now, after I had reflected extensively on how best to compile and present such a list. First, I had to decide which books belonged on the list.

Of course, my Booklist itself is by no means populated exclusively by "good literature." For example, over 5% of the list is made up of Hardy Boys mysteries. Star Wars novels comprise nearly 10% of the list. However, the top five most represented authors (not counting Franklin W. Dixon, of course, as that is a pen name used by numerous authors), are as follows: Agatha Christie (32), William Shakespeare (25), Beverly Cleary (20), Sigmund Brouwer (18), and Isaac Asimov and C. S. Lewis (both 17).

My Booklist records a work's title, author, and the rating (out of 100) that I gave it. The ratings have shifted so drastically over the years, and were so totally bizzare to begin with, that they are now meaningless to everyone except (sometimes) me. I soon realized that, out of the 38 books I have given a perfect score, only a little over half of them would make it to my top 50. More deserving books have been given lower ratings in the past. Also, I realized that over 25% of all books I have read have received a rating of 90 or higher. This is clearly ridiculous. I mean, I get a great deal of pleasure out of the simple act of reading, and that is certainly a factor, but come on . . .

Then I wondered about order. At first I had them ranked from least to most favorite, but I played with them and played with them and finally realized that it was silly to try that. In the end, I dropped them all into a spreadsheet, categorized them every which way from Tuesday, and sorted them to see what worked best. I decided that I would present them in chronological order, as I read them. I think it shows best how my tastes have changed, along with how what I'm reading has changed, but also what has remained the same.

All that to say, I had a fun time of it selecting my 50 favorite books of all time and listing them off. There are four things to keep in mind as I post them in the days ahead:

-I limited myself to only one work per author on the list. This allows the list to reflect more of the authors I enjoy reading, so that it is implied that some of their other works are among my favorites as well, and I can keep the list more diverse. It also really helped me wittle down the candidates.

-In a few very special cases, I have counted books which were published seperately as a single work. I have tried not to let this get out of control, and only used it with the works that are available in a single-volume edition. There were certain cases where I truly felt that either a single, favorite book could not be separated from others without losing part of what makes it a favorite, or that the books must be taken together to be complete. In a few cases, I felt that a single volume was, perhaps, not a favorite, but that the whole definitely was. That's just the way it is sometimes, and my list reflects that.

-This is not a list of The Best Books I Have Ever Read. I wouldn't presume to judge that . . . I wouldn't dare. These are simply the books that I have gotten the most pleasure from reading over the years, and which I most heartily recommend to others or enjoy discussing with fellow fans. I would like to think that, in a sense, there is at least one book or author on this list for everyone. In other words, I would hope that everyone might find at least one of their own favorite authors on this list (if not their most favorite), or that (if they haven't read them all) there is at least one book or author which would number among their favorites.

-In the spirit of that last observation, I would very much relish any commentary from my audience regarding my list. Congratulate me for including a particular book. Tell me I'm crazy for including a particular book. Shake your fist at me for not including a particular book, or (as it is quite possible that I haven't read it) recommend that I go find myself a copy. But, most importantly, say something. I've had a great time pulling this together, and it exists for me, chiefly, but I love talking about this stuff with others. Let me know what you think.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

November 01, 2005

Yes, of course, but can it be done?

This is the reply that leaps unbidden to mind when I ask myself, "Do I really want to attempt to produce a deconstructive analysis of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in (ostensibly) seven pages or less for presentation at the Student Literary Conference in early December worth 20% of my Literary Criticism grade?" This way madness seems to lie.

And yet, I rather believe that this is something which I must undertake. I am at a critical point in my education: just knowledgeable enough to have the capacity to produce such a paper, and just dumb enough to apply that critical theory to this novel. Only now do I possess together the essential tools I am required to employ and the lack of academic face to lose. I want to do a good job with this paper.

At this point, I had composed a lengthy examination of the problems I foresaw with the writing of such a paper, and the solutions I expected to encounter. But that was really boring, and all I really wanted, I think, was an excuse (however tenuous) to reproduce two very interesting pieces of poetry composed by Humbert Humbert within Lolita. I believe, however, that they are excuse enough by themselves. They are below the fold. Make of them what you will.

The first is written in the fit of madness suffered by H. H. directly after Dolores is spirited away by "McFate." It is tragically sweet on one level, but the rhyme and rhythm give it an air of pathetic comedy, and the context creates a total effect that is simply haunting. The reader struggles between sympathy and revulsion. H. H. himself refers to it as "a maniac's masterpiece" (257).

The second is the poem which H. H. forces "McFate" (avoiding possible spoilers by not naming names) to read aloud when he finally catches up to him. The critical work I am consulting calls this poem a parody of T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," and earlier explains that Nabokov wasn't particularly impressed with Eliot's poetry. It's most interesting feature is the way in which McFate's snide interjections seem to be part of the poem even as they tear apart the dramatic effect of the thing.

Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or "starlet."

Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling).

Where are you riding, Dolores Haze?
What make is the magic carpet?
Is a Cream Cougar the present craze?
And where are you parked, my car pet?

Who is your hero, Dolores Haze?
Still one of those blue-caped star-men?
Oh the balmy days and the palmy bays,
And the cars, and the bars, my Carmen!

Oh Dolores, that juke-box hurts!
Are you still dancin', darlin'?
(Both in worn levis, both in torn T-shirts,
And I, in my corner, snarlin').

Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.

My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,
And never closed when I kissed her.
Know an old perfume called Soleil Vert?
Are you from Paris, mister?

L'autre soir un air froid d'opéra m'alita:
Son félé - bien fol est qui s'y fie!
Il neige, le décor s'écroule, Lolita!
Lolita, qu'ai-je fait de ta vie?

Dying, dying, Lolita Haze,
Of hate and remorse, I'm dying.
And again my hairy fist I raise,
And again I hear you crying.

Officer, officer, there they go -
In the rain, where that lighted store is!
And her socks are white, and I love her so,
And her name is Haze, Dolores.

Officer, officer, there they are -
Dolores Haze and her lover!
Whip out your gun and follow that car.
Now tumble out, and take cover.

Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.
Ninety pounds is all she weighs
With a height of sixty inches.

My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.

-Lolita, 255-257

Here goes. I see it's in verse.

Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage . . .

That's good, you know. That's damned good.

. . .when I stood Adam-naked
before a federal law and all its stinging stars

Oh, grand stuff!

Because you took advantage of a sin
when I was helpless moulting moist and tender
hoping for the best
dreaming of marriage in a mountain state
aye of a litter of Lolitas . . .

Didn't get that.

Because you took advantage of my inner
essential innocence
because you cheated me -

A little repetitious, what? Where was I?

Because you cheated me of my redemption
because you took
her at the age when lads
play with erector sets

Getting smutty, eh?

a little downy girl still wearing poppies
still eating popcorn in the colored gloam
where tawny Indians took paid croppers
because you stole her
from her wax-browed and dignified protector
spitting into his heavy-lidded eye
ripping his flavid toga and at dawn
leaving the hog to roll upon his new discomfort
the awfulness of love and violets
remorse depair while you
took a dull doll to pieces
and threw its head away
because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die

Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I'm concerned.

-Lolita, 299-300

Posted by Jared at 09:02 PM | TrackBack

October 19, 2005

Intellectual Expatriates

America between the World Wars was an interesting place to live, to say the least. Prohibition, the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, the New Deal . . . okay, maybe not that last part so much. But this period of American history finally brings me within the realm that I hope to cover in my major paper for the course: the impact of the Southern Literary Renaissance on the South (fuzzily dated 1929-1965). The 1930s sees the emergence of the early renaissance writers: Faulkner, Caldwell, and Wolfe (to name the major voices).

These three authors were native Southerners writing about their home ground in a . . . well, less than flattering light. But our reading this week was packed to the limit with authors of the 1920s who were dissatisfied with the society and economic systems they saw around them: Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a host of minor names I'd never encountered before. What makes the Southern voices so unique and noticeable?

I would guess that the key difference lies in what and who they were writing against. Upton Sinclair wrote an expose on the horrific practices of a meat-packing company, skewering a faceless corporation motivated by greed to disregard the consequences of their policies on everyone. Sinclair Lewis wrote about the closed minds and soulless existences of white-collar America, a faceless mass who only really harmed themselves through their actions. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the destructiveness of amoral and hedonistic upper-class lifestyles. All of these authors were writing against the current of the populace, and many of the very people they targeted loved them for it.

But Faulkner, Caldwell, and Wolfe, and the Southern writers who came after them, were writing about blind prejudice and a backwards mentality which were keeping the entire region socially, economically, and mentally tied to an anachronistic ideal. The South was unable to develop past a certain point, and the results were poverty, ignorance, and discrimanation (to name a few). And Southern authors were not simply speaking out against these problems, nor were they addressing a faceless mass. Southern authors were condemning their own relatives, their own friends, the citizens of the small towns they grew up in. They were traitors and infidels. At least that's what their former friends and scandalized relatives called them.

The literature of the South during this period comprises a more significant, poignant, and truly revolutionary body of work because the writing of it required sufficient intellectual strength to tear loose of the generations-old mores surrounding these authors, and sufficient moral courage to speak out against people they knew personally.

Expect to see me develop this theme further before the end of the semester, but for now, that's all I've got.

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October 07, 2005

Paige's Shirt: A New Critical Approach

Dr. Watson is sick again today. His illness last night led to me and Gallagher running our Reading the Bible as Literature class. Today I was to have Literary Criticism with him, as usual, but sadly he was not here. Instead we were instructed to compose our journals for today using a poem or other short work and applying a formalist reading to the text.

I hate New Criticism. I find it limiting, narrow-minded, and pretentious. I, for one, would rather not put blinders on before I read something. But that is what I was instructed to do. As my Lit Crit group (self, Paige, Randy, and Ashley) got into a huddle, all of our eyes were drawn once again to Paige's shirt, a rather busy affair consisting of scads of black text in different fonts crowded onto a white background. I've already forgotten who suggested the idea, but it didn't take long for everyone to latch onto it and run with it . . . we must clearly analyze Paige's shirt using New Criticism. No, seriously, we should. See end of post for bibliography.

"Entity" by Daniel Benjamin is a work full of confusion, contrast, tension, and irony which, ultimately, resolves itself into a pointed description of a culture defined by superficial materialism. The work is composed of a wild, disorderly jumble of words in different fonts and different sizes. All of the words, phrases, and concepts in the work appear multiple times. Some of the words are associated with others, some seem to have nothing to do with anything else, and some change according to their context within the work.

For instance, the word "diet" (center, under collar; center, above stomach, left sleeve, shoulder) appears in numerous places throughout the work, but is never truly connected to anything else. However, the concept of encouraging weight-loss is affirmed by the few types of foods which appear scattered here and there: "apples" and "avocados" (right, under collar). Additionally, the text includes a number of disconnected references to tropical destinations like "Miami," (right sleeve, wrist) "Palm Beach," (center, upper back) and "Costa Rica" (center, lower back). One of the most telling phrases in terms of a unifying theme is "US leadership in terms of culture" (right, lower back).

Juxtaposition also plays an important role. For instance, when "Perfect Compromise" is linked with "Nothing," (center, chest) producing the impression that a perfect compromise is no compromise at all. In another spot, "Looking Younger" is placed next to "Production," (center, diaphragm) implying that one must work to avoid the effects of aging and produce a good impression. Or there is the connection of "Behind Those Blue Eyes" and "BOMBSHELL," (left, chest) indicating that shocking part of ourselves which we keep hidden from the world.

"Entity" is a jumbled work, full of contradiction, tension, and irony, but ultimately the entirety is unified through its connection to a single person: the average vapid materialist of modern culture. The work is a testament to the busyness and drive of their lifestyle, but also shows the emptiness of it all. It hints at dark tensions that lie beneath the surface of even the shallowest personality.

Work Cited

Benjamin, Daniel. "Entity." 45% polyester, 45% rayon, 10% lycra. Machine wash cold, gentle cycle, reshape, dry flat, no bleach, inside out. Cut 717, Style #1252-1. Made in USA, Small.

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September 29, 2005

My Lincoln Log

This week's intellectual history topic was a bit . . . well, narrow. At least, it was narrow compared to our other topics. We didn't discuss a period, or a group, or a body of literature . . . We discussed Abraham Lincoln. One guy, one lifetime. So much has been written and said about Lincoln . . . almost too much. In fact, our reading this week included a collection of bizarre titles covering every possible facet of his life (and some I would have considered impossible). My personal favorite of these titles was Abraham Lincoln The Friend of Man His Life Was Another Drop in That Vat Where Human Lives, Like Grapes in God's Vintages, Yield the Wine That Strengthens the Spirit of Truth and Justice in the World. But that still doesn't give me anything to write about.

Who was this guy? I'm not asking this question in the same sense as the title of our reading for the week ("Who Is This Fellow? He Is Smarter Than He Looks"). That question indicates that even people in Lincoln's own day wondered who he was and how he had come to exist. I ask the question because I think we still don't know . . . Surely we know less now than we did then, and are less certain to find out.

I wondered in class what it was that made Lincoln unique, and I just double-checked with a list of presidents to try and confirm what we came up with. Lincoln was the first president to rise from truly humble beginnings directly into a position of power (no, Andrew Jackson doesn't count). Looking down the list of the presidents, Lincoln is one of a very scant handful of "log cabin" presidents, none of whom really distinguished themselves quite like he did. In addition, Lincoln was an intellectual, something we wouldn't normally link to humble origins. He is one of a very scant handful of intellectual presidents (not counting the founding fathers, clearly a special group) . . . and none of the others really had "humble beginnings."

But is it really this quality of being, as we discussed in class, a "self-made intellectual" that makes Lincoln special? Or do we just notice this all the more because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding his presidency? In other words, is his success due to his notable qualities, or do we only notice that he had notable qualities because he employed them successfully at a unique time in American history? Might we have presidents who were just as great as Lincoln, but who don't get his "press" because they didn't pull us through a crisis . . . because their admirable qualities weren't given a chance to shine? Did Lincoln's excellent qualities make his success and fame inevitable?

If there's one thing I hate, it's having an entire paragraph of only questions and no real answers for them, but those are the things I wonder about. I can't really give a solid response to any of them. As I said the other night, I don't think it detracts at all from Lincoln's greatness to say that his fame and success are not at all surprising. Lincoln described himself in early life as a "strange, penniless, friendless, uneducated boy working on a flatboat for ten dollars a month." But the fact remains that, no matter how humble his beginnings may have been or what he may have had working against him, Lincoln was a white male born in the right country at the right time in possession of all the qualities he would need to achieve what he achieved. His position was no accident. His success was no mistake. Whoever Abraham Lincoln may or may not have been, he was certainly not a historical fluke.

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September 22, 2005

The Master Geniuses

I posited a hypothesis in class on Wednesday night regarding the development of a distinctly American literature. It came from a consideration of our reading, part of which was on American literary nationalism of the antebellum period. Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper were named, of course, as two early and popular distinctly American authors. And then, of course, there were the Romantics pushing for America to develop her own literature, to do her own thing: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, etc. But the ones which, as usual, really caught my eye were the following:

If the only surviving documents from the 1840s and 1850s were its major novels, historians would face an impossible task in describing the appearance of antebellum American society. The unusual settings favored by [Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe] partly reflected their view that American life lacked the materials for great fiction. Hawthorne, for example, bemoaned the difficulty of writing about a country "where there is no shadow, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land" . . .

Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe ignored Emerson's call to write about the everyday experiences of their fellow Americans. Nor did they follow Cooper's lead by creating distinctively American heroes. Yet each contributed to an indisputably American literature. Ironically, their conviction that the lives of ordinary Americans provided inadequate materials for fiction led them to create a uniquely American fiction, one marked less by the description of the complex social relationships of ordinary life than by the analysis of moral dilemmas and psychological states.

-The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People

My idea, in keeping with this, was that while Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau were attempting to impose a distinctly American form on their writing or that of others, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe were actually succeeding because they weren't actually trying, or, in fact, even thinking about it. I also consider the latter three to be writers of infinite better quality than the former three (although they have their place). In my estimation, once those three begin to write, American literature, as such, starts to actually "get good."

Then I read "Hawthorne and His Mosses" by Herman Melville, and it in turn directed me to read "A Select Party" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The quotes below led me to modify my hypothesis a bit (pardon their length):

It is true, that but few of them as yet have evinced that decided originality which merits great praise. But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions,--that very popular and amiable writer, however good, and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the self-acknowledged imitation of a foreign model, and to the studied avoidance of all topics but smooth ones . . . Without malice, but to speak the plain fact, they but furnish an appendix to Goldsmith, and other English authors. And we want no American Goldsmiths, nay, we want no American Miltons. It were the vilest thing you could say of a true American author, that he were an American Tompkins. Call him an American, and have done, for you can not say a nobler thing of him.--But it is not meant that all American writers should studiously cleave to nationality in their writings; only this, no American writer should write like an Englishman, or a Frenchman; let him write like a man, for then he will be sure to write like an American. Let us away with this leaven of literary flunkyism towards England. If either we must play the flunky in this thing, let England do it, not us. While we are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century; in a literary point of view, we are deplorably unprepared for it; and we seem studious to remain so . . . we should refrain from unduly lauding foreign writers, and, at the same time, duly recognize the meritorious writers that are our own,--those writers, who breathe that unshackled, democratic spirit of Christianity in all things, which now takes the practical lead in the world, though at the same time led by ourselves--us Americans . . . if any of our authors fail, or seem to fail, then, in the words of my enthusiastic Carolina cousin, let us clap him on the shoulder, and back him against all Europe for his second round. The truth is, that in our point of view, this matter of a national literature has come to such a pass with us, that in some sense we must turn bullies, else the day is lost . . .

-Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"

But now appeared a stranger . . . he was a young man in poor attire, with no insignia of rank or acknowledged eminence, nor anything to distinguish him among the crowd except a high, white forehead, beneath which a pair of deep-set eyes were glowing with warm light. It was such a light as never illuminates the earth save when a great heart burns as the household fire of a grand intellect. And who was he?--who but the Master Genius for whom our country is looking anxiously into the mist of Time, as destined to fulfil the great mission of creating an American literature, hewing it, as it were, out of the unwrought granite of our intellectual quarries? From him, whether moulded in the form of an epic poem or assuming a guise altogether new as the spirit itself may determine, we are to receive our first great original work, which shall do all that remains to be achieved for our glory among the nations . . . he dwells as yet unhonored among men, unrecognized by those who have known him from his cradle; the noble countenance which should be distinguished by a halo diffused around it passes daily amid the throng of people toiling and troubling themselves about the trifles of a moment, and none pay reverence to the worker of immortality. Nor does it matter much to him, in his triumph over all the ages, though a generation or two of his own times shall do themselves the wrong to disregard him.

-Hawthorne, "A Select Party"

And here, let me throw out another conceit of mine touching this American Shiloh, or "Master Genius," as Hawthorne calls him. May it not be, that this commanding mind has not been, is not, and never will be, individually developed in any one man? And would it, indeed, appear so unreasonable to suppose, that this great fullness and overflowing may be, or may be destined to be, shared by a plurality of men of genius? Surely, to take the very greatest example on record, Shakespeare cannot be regarded as in himself the concretion of all the genius of his time; nor as so immeasurably beyond Marlowe, Webster, Ford, Beaumont, Johnson, that those great men can be said to share none of his power?

-Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses"

From these passages it is fairly clear that the emergence of a distinctly American literature was very much a part of Hawthorne and Melville's thinking. And as for Poe . . . well, who dares to plumb the depths of whatever may have been running through his head? Y'know, when he wasn't drunk or high. The point is, that this quite shattered my hypothesis, but it did lead me to an interesting thought. Hawthorne and Melville, although they probably didn't know it, were talking about themselves.

Melville and Hawthorne, along with Poe and those who would soon follow (Henry James, Mark Twain, and, much later, William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, to name just a few), are among the Master Geniuses who tower above the rest in our study of the uniquely American literary tradition. Not a great revelation, perhaps, but it is fascinating to see the men themselves speculating about the form American literature will finally take when it comes into its own, even as they themselves are playing an essential role in shaping it.

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September 15, 2005

Scattershot Education and Divine Impetus

Most conspicuous in the writings of the Revolutionary period was the heritage of classical antiquity. Knowledge of classical authors was universal among colonists . . .

But this elaborate display of classical authors is deceptive. Often the learning behind it was superficial; often the citations appear to have been dragged in as "window dressing with which to ornament a page or a speech and to increase the weight of an argument" . . . Thacher too thought Plato had been a liberty-loving revolutionary, while Jefferson, who actually read the Dialogues, discovered in them only the "sophisms, futilities, and incomprehensibilities" of a "foggy mind" - an idea concurred in with relief by John Adams, who in 1774 had cited Plato as an advocate of equality and self-government but who was so shocked when he finally studied the philosopher that he concluded that the Republic must have been meant as a satire.

. . . What is basically important in the Americans' reading of the ancients is the high selectivity of their real interests and the limitation of the range of their effective knowledge. For though the colonists drew their citations from all portions of the literature of the ancient world, their detailed knowledge and engaged interest covered only one era and one small group of writers.

-The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, Bernard Bailyn

But, my friend, the priests of the temple of Zeus at Dodona say that the first prophecies were the words of an oak. Everyone who lived at that time, not being as wise as you young ones are today, found it rewarding enough in their simplicity to listen to an oak or even a stone, so long as it was telling the truth, while it seems to make a difference to you, Phaedrus, who is speaking and where he comes from. Why, though, don't you just consider whether what he says is right or wrong?

. . . Those who think they can leave written instructions for an art, as well as those who accept them, thinking that writing can yield results that are clear or certain, must be quite naive and truly ignorant of Ammon's prophetic judgment: otherwise, how could they possibly think that words that have been written down can do more than remind those who already know what the writing is about?

-Phaedrus, Plato

One thing apparently hasn't changed about education over the course of the last few centuries: we still only study bits and snatches of the great writings of western civilization. Reading from Bailyn for Intellectual History this week, I was struck by the irony that I, too, was merely reading a selection by this historian for class.

Furthermore, I've been sampling liberally from Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Horace, etc. for Literary Criticism. We read portions varying between 5 and 20 pages of their work, discuss them briefly in class, and move on. This is the extent of my knowledge of Greek and Roman literature: whatever some mysterious group of people deemed important enough to shove into an anthology, and then whatever portion of that is actually assigned by the professor.

But as I saw what the literati of the revolutionary period were reading, and how they were using what they read, I was reminded of that excerpt from Plato that I quoted above. The Founding Fathers had an idea, even a fixation, in their heads of liberty and government and purpose, and once that idea was there, they saw it everywhere they looked. They pulled aspects of their grand philosophy together (whether they actually existed in the text or not) out of writings from (among others) the Ancient Greeks, the Enlightenment thinkers, the Puritans . . . could three groups of intellectual thought be more diametrically opposed to each other than these?

And yet from them, men like Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton began to cobble together the foundation of the American Republic. Plato has it that writing cannot teach anyone new ideas, it can only remind them of things they already knew. I don't know for certain that I agree with that statement and all of its implications, but I think it was true here. Incidentally, I am also not immune to the irony of quoting a fragment of Plato to support this particular point.

There was one more thing that struck me during the discussion of Bailyn's piece. "In one sense [New England Puritanism] was the most limited and parochial tradition that contributed in an important way to the writings of the Revolution . . . But in another sense it contained the broadest ideas of all, since it offered a context for everyday events nothing less than cosmic in its dimensions."

Having just completed Wide as the Waters by Benson Bobrick and discussed the incredible impact on history of the translation of the Bible into English, it is apparent just how important this "most limited" contribution really was. The Puritans represent, out of all of the sources of Revolutionary thought Bailyn named, the staunchly biblical worldview. This was a worldview which most people had no real exposure to a mere 300 years before. Once the Bible, that all-time bestselling book, started to hit British stands in fits and starts beginning in the early sixteenth century, it began to revolutionize the lives and minds of everyone who came into contact with it.

As to the contribution of the Puritans to the American Revolution, and America in general, it seems to me that logical arguments and appeals to reason and precedent can only go so far in forming the impetus of a movement which seeks to overthrow an established government and create an entirely new country out of thin air. If, however, you can convince people that not only is God on their side, but this is His plan for them . . . How much more powerful of a motivator is that? That, not something from Plato or Locke or Montesquieu, is an idea that people will fight and die for.

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September 08, 2005

Puritan Fetish

The Puritans have been getting a great deal of attention in my classes lately. In Literary Criticism we read and dissected "Young Goodman Brown," and I returned in my mind to my readings of The Scarlet Letter. In Reading the Bible as Literature our studies of the Scriptures in English have carried us into the reign of James I, who became yet another ruler to dash the hopes of those who had been aching for a Protestant agenda in government ever since the all-too-short reign of Edward VI some 55 years before. And there were hints at the extreme religious group that would soon emerge . . . One that would gain so much power so quickly that they would be able to overthrow the government less than 40 years later and plunge England into civil war.

And, in Intellectual History in America, we discussed at length "The Puritan Imprint" and the intellectual character of the Puritans based on readings from "The New England Mind" by Perry Miller and various primary source works from people like Mather, Edwards, Bradstreet, and Winthrop (see also Wilson's excellent post on Roger Williams). Our text spent a great deal of time belaboring the idea that, yes, the Puritans were very intellectual types, despite their apparent dogmatism and authoritarianism.

He proved his point by citing the extensive writings of the Puritans, their complex and well-developed theological system, their standards of education from young children through university students, and the religious controversies they became embroiled in, especially during the English Civil War.

The Puritans were by no means perfect. They gave us the expression "witch hunt" from the universally-reviled goings-on in Salem. Lovers of the learning and The Arts hate them for the closing down of London theaters and their general disapproval of secular art, philosophy, etc. But what can we, as Christians and as Americans, learn from the Puritans today?

As we continued to read about them and discuss them, there began to emerge in my mind an image of men and women strong in faith, character, mind, body, and spirit, who weren't going to settle for anything less than a community of believers governed entirely by the principles of the Bible and devoted to spiritual and intellectual growth along biblical lines. This was their vision for the colonies in America and, in one way or another, that has had a profound impact on our history.

It has been fascinating to study, not only the Puritans, but those who laid the foundations for them, and those who looked back on them after they were gone. Men like John Wycliffe and William Tyndale led the way towards a translation of the Bible in English (an unbelievable story in itself) as the Catholic Church fell into chaos and disarray and seemed ready to fragment into a million pieces, and Henry VIII (for his own reasons) pulled away from Rome to establish the Church of England. And, of course, there are the giants of the Reformation like John Calvin and Martin Luther, making a successful break from Catholicism and establishing new doctrines.

Then there is Nathaniel Hawthorne, a 19th Century Romantic and one of the great American authors, who also happened to be descended from the Puritans. He, if his writings are any indication, was fascinated by them, both their flaws and their better qualities, and he used their communities as the setting for inquiries into the nature of good and evil, piety and sin, love and revenge . . . He saw the Puritans as flawed and conflicted human beings, many of whom tried (with mixed success) to do the right thing.

Hawthorne's perspective on the Puritans is, I think, both healthy and valuable. Their ideals were sound, even when their practices were not. Their impact, both on the world around them and on generations to come, was profound. And always they strove towards a firm establishment of God's Kingdom on earth. What more could we ask of any Christian in any age in history? Has any single group of believers at any one point in history since the Apostles succeeded as the Puritans did?

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September 07, 2005

The Chief Horror of the Scene: Hawthorne's Heart of Darkness

I have discovered that I much prefer Hawthorne's short fiction to his longer works. In this case that basically means that I liked Young Goodman Brown a great deal more than I liked The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne, it would appear, had something of a Puritan fetish. His love/hate relationship with them (his ancestors) and their actions emerges over and over again in his writing, and this yielded some fascinating results. In the story, Goodman Brown leaves behind his young wife, Faith (despite her protestations that he remain) for a meeting in the midst of a dark and gloomy forest with Satan himself.

Satan and Goodman journey through the forest together, and as they go deeper and deeper Goodman begins to have doubts about this meeting that he is attending. But each time he resolves to turn back, he is confronted by a member of his community who he had formerly believed to be above reproach; the woman who taught him his catechism, the minister, etc. And all of these people are on their way to the meeting, as well.

When he finally arrives, already questioning the very foundation of everything he has ever believed, he joins the group of new initiates and finds Faith among them. Faith, before now, has been his only anchor to everything he thought he knew about humanity and virtue before entering the forest. Now even that has been stripped away. And yet, at the critical moment, Goodman cries out to Faith to resist the devil, and at once everyone around him vanishes (including her). He returns to town the next morning and finds everything exactly as he left it. Was it all a dream? Lies from Satan? Did any of it really happen?

Whether it did or not, Goodman Brown lives out the rest of his long days certain that Satan is watching him from behind the eyes of everyone around him. He becomes a paranoid and embittered old man, and "his dying hour [is] gloom."

I think that the title of this work, the characters, and the development of the plot and themes carry strong ties to medieval morality plays in the vein of Everyman. "Young Goodman Brown" is a very simple and generic title for a character that we should all be identifying with in his struggles with himself and the evils around him. Faith is clearly a somewhat allegorical character of the type often found in morality plays, and Goodman's actions bear this out.

Goodman leaves his Faith behind at the beginning of the story. "Poor little Faith! . . . What a wretch am I, to leave her . . ." He spends the rest of the story attempting to cling to his Faith. "With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil!" And, finally, he loses his Faith entirely at the end. "My Faith is gone!" ". . . he shrank from the bosom of Faith . . . and turned away." And, of course, Satan is the prominent antagonist in the story, using every trick in his arsenal to take possession of Goodman's soul.

In particular, there are two interesting aspects of how the story develops. All of the imagery in the story is a direct reflection of the descent of the character into darkness and evil, while the outward appearance of the people around him is a direct contrast to their true natures. Satan, when Goodman meets him in the forest, is dressed "in grave and decent attire." And, of course, everyone he meets along his way, though formerly revered as among most pious in his community, is in fact evil.

The use of color in the story is especially significant . . . there isn't any. Goodman enters the gloomy forest and things just get darker, from grays to blacks, from there. The only two colors mentioned are the distinctive pink of Faith's ribbon, and the red of the satanic fire. This lack of color and light is a reflection of the darkness that Goodman is shocked to discover in the human heart. (As a side-note, Goodman is in possession of Faith's ribbon when he meets her before Satan in the woods, but she has it back again the next morning. This, though Goodman fails to notice it, seems to indicate that she was never actually in the woods at all.)

The key moment in the story for me comes near the end, when Faith and Goodman are together, standing before the devil. He says to them, "Depending on one another's hearts, ye had still hoped that virtue were not all a dream. Now are ye undeceived! Evil is the nature of mankind. Evil must be your only happiness."

Satan has put into words what Goodman was already beginning to suspect as his journey drew to a close. Earlier on Hawthorne describes a bone-chilling scene: the forest, thick and dark, full of terrifying sounds, nothing even remotely indicative of any sort of comfort or light. "But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors . . . The fiend in his own shape is less hideous than when he rages in the breast of man." In the midst of a scene full of darkness and evil, the heart of darkness is within Goodman Brown ("the horror, the horror").

Standing before Satan, he hears a mixture of lies and half-truths, and believes because of what he has been shown. Satan has revealed to him something that he should already have learned from scripture (that man is basically evil), but has left out half the story. Goodman has no more faith, no more hope. Having been told that evil is his only happiness, he chooses not to be happy at all.

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August 01, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: The Horror of Proximity

I have done it. I have finished reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov within a mere hour of the arrival of Harry Potter 6. Having seen the movie last semester, and given it top marks, and considering the nature and quality of the literary version, I find it is impossible to proceed without writing something in the way of my impressions of the novel, and how I think it compares to the cinematic version.

This is the first (though by no means the last) Nabokov work which I have read, and I was floored by it. The only works of prose fiction that I have found which can compare with the skill and beauty of Nabokov's use of the English language are the "Gormenghast" novels by Mervyn Peake. The opening sentence of the novel is "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." It proceeds, sometimes in a wild and feverish tone, sometimes in a dry and sardonic conversational tone, as the confession of a heinous sinner who has reached a point of almost ridiculously blunt honesty simply because he has nothing to lose by telling every word of the truth.

And yet English was not Nabokov's first language, nor even his second. Nabokov, like Joseph Conrad, is one of the few authors to gain special renown for their incredible deftness with a language which was not their own. I was quite shocked, in fact, to find this pronouncement by the author himself at the very end of Lolita: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English."

However, some might, and indeed have, argued that the sublimity of Nabokov's prose, while impressive, does not succeed in masking the rotted, amoral heart of the novel's subject matter. Beautiful writing may be all well and good, and certainly there is much to be said for it, but really, at its core, Lolita is simply a book about a 12-year old girl who is forced into two years of sexual slavery to our narrator, who is in almost all other respects a highly sympathetic, intelligent, and good-looking main character. Or is it? Is it really possible to dismiss so lightly something with which we are uncomfortable on merely moral grounds, or does it not rather depend on how the book treats the subject? Obviously, I am siding with the latter choice.

I mentioned earlier that the entire book is narrated by the semi-penitent pedophile, Humbert Humbert. This is not entirely true. Humbert's account takes up approximately 98% of the novel, however it is sandwhiched between an introduction, ostensibly written by an editor selected posthumously by Humbert's lawyer, and an afterword by Nabokov, finally writing as himself. Each of these three voices has something very important to tell us about the book and what it has to say. The first, strangely (considering we see it before the story proper has even begun), is the most detailed of the three. However, it is also the most shallow analysis of what we can take out of Lolita.

Viewed simply as a novel, "Lolita" deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here. If, however, for this paradoxical prude's comfort an editor attempted to dilute or omit scenes that a certain type of mind might call "aphrodisiac" (see in this respect the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoiken, book), one would have to forego the publication of "Lolita" altogether, since those very scenes that one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis. The cynic may say that commercial pornography makes the same claim; the learned may counter by asserting that "H. H."'s impassiouned confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12 percent of American adult males - a "conservative" estimate according to Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann (verbal communication) - enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience "H. H." describes with such despair; that had our demented diarist gone, in the fatal summer of 1947, to a competent psychopathologist, there would have been no disaster; but then, neither would there have been this book.

This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that "offensive" is frequently but a synonym for "unusual"; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify "H. H." No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

As a case history, "Lolita" will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac - these are not only the vivid characters in a unique story; they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. "Lolita" should make all of us - parents, social workers, educators - apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.

Incidentally, the ruling of 1933 that is referenced above decided that James Joyce's highly controversial Ulysses, which had been successfully kept out of the United States for over a decade, was not pornographic. As such the significance of this ruling should be readily apparent. That interesting tidbit aside, this view of Lolita preserves a very important distance between the audience and Humbert Humbert. We, the "parents, social workers, educators," the moral compass of society, the fine, upstanding citizens should see in Lolita a call to increasing vigilance against the prowling lion.

It is certainly true that the book functions on this level. As Humbert carefully plays out his hand in the acquisition of sole, unrestricted access to the young Dolores Haze throughout part one we see the serious blunders made by responsible adults all around both Lolita and H. H. They could have seen this coming, and they could have prevented it. This element continues throughout the two-year period of captivity in part two. A number of adults enter the lives of Dolly and Hum who might be capable of grasping the enormity of the situation if only their eyes were open. Sadly, they do not. Lolita points with a gnarled and trembling finger at evils which we must constantly guard against, and it does so in a vivid and unforgettable manner.

However, there is still this distance which is maintained in the introduction. That distance is erased from the first sentence of chapter one. Humbert Humbert, who has generously offered to guide us through the dark and twisted paths of his own story, will now attempt to explain himself, his background, his motives, his dark obsessions, addictions, and descent . . . He will reveal all. Or will he? I have very little doubt that H. H. believes that every word he tells us is the absolute truth, but after all, that doesn't mean that it is, does it? We must never forget that every passage of his journey into sexual obsession, manipulation, and finally, domination is viewable only through his own impossibly-biased eyes. Lolita herself, sole witness to most of what transpires in the book, is dead, even were she given the opportunity to speak (which, importantly, she is not). More on this later.

The point here is that now we are fully inside the mind of Humbert, and looking about us we certainly cannot claim to like what we see . . . but do we recoil in disgust and repulsion because we fear his depravity, or because we recognize it? The following passage was, to me, one of the most compelling in the book by far, as it outlines the vicious and never-ending cycle of fall into sin, guilty and remorseful weakness, and renewed temptation.

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her - after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred - I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever - for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) - and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again - and "oh, no", Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven and the next moment the tenderness and the azure - all would be shattered.

A Father Brown book I have recently finished contained the following quote: "There are two ways of renouncing the devil . . . and the difference is perhaps the deepest chasm in modern religion. One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near. And no virtue and vice are so much divided as those two virtues. You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it." Humbert Humbert may not be committing an "average" sin, but I would contest that he is certainly the average sinner. He is selfish, dishonest and manipulative, in addition to being addicted to his pedophiliac lusts and being obsessed and consumed by his desire for Lolita. This makes him almost a sympathetic figure.


But I'll get to that in a moment as well. As I mentioned earlier, there is one more narrative voice that casts light on Lolita, that of the author himself. As I have already shown, the book has a great deal to tell us, both about others and about ourselves, but what exactly is it that we are being shown? The answer to that lies in Nabokov's explanation of his original inspiration for the story:

The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris . . . As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardins des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage. The impulse I record had no textual connection with the ensuing train of thought . . .

I cannot say with any certainty that I know how Nabokov got from point A to point B, but consider for a moment the nature of Lolita. The subtitle is "Confessions of a White Widowed Male" and the entire book is (ostensibly) produced by this person. I know of no book that precedes Lolita which does what Lolita attempts to do. It is, in fact, the first novel ever produced by a self-confessed pedophile. And it shows us the bars of his cage. Lolita explains Humbert's every move . . . why he acts as he does, why he makes the decisions he does, where he comes from. It is not a cage from which there is no escape, however Humbert is unwilling or unable to make his escape on his own. This, I think, is one of the most important aspects of the book.

This would be as good a time as any to get back to a few things that I mentioned earlier, and begin my comparison between novel and movie. The movie, in terms of plot, is virtually identical to the book. The only changes I can think of are in things that are omitted from the movie version, either as I time consideration, or to sneak the movie by the censors. On the surface, the movie and the novel relate the events of the story in precisely the same manner. The key difference, which separates the two from each other entirely, is in the point of view.

In the book, we see everything through the eyes of Humbert. In the movie, we see everything through the eyes of the camera. This is a problem. Yes, Humbert is still the storyteller in the movie, and technically we do witness everything from his point of view. However, there is an inherent assumption by the viewer that what is on-screen is unbiased reality. While the novel might make it quite clear that everything we hear from Humbert is being told with his slant on it, the average movie viewer assumes that it is impossible to similarly trick the eyes. What we see on the screen is what is happening, and we believe this and form our opinions of the situation accordingly.

I would like to mention first that reading the book did not diminish my appreciation of the movie in any way. If anything, it had the opposite effect. However, it is important to realize that the movie we are watching is still a filmed version of Humbert's account. Lolita still does not have a voice and cannot speak for herself.

I have spent a great deal of time so far showing the tragedy of Humbert's character . . . his flaws and weaknesses and the damage that these do to his soul as he is trapped in a prison of lust. But all of this does not diminish the fact that Humbert is not the primary victim of tragedy in Lolita. That label goes to the title character alone. Lolita herself is the one deserving of pity and sympathy. Humbert, throughout his final denouement, expresses a great deal of remorse for what he has done, beats himself up over his failings, etc. But once again, as he has stolen Lolita's innocence and childhood and two years of her life, he is attempting to make off with our sympathy for her, to transfer it onto himself. I don't think he even realizes he is doing it. His character is so very manipulative and self-centered that he is incapable of doing otherwise.

But I wasn't fooled. It does not take much effort throughout a reading of Lolita to see that nothing which takes place, no matter what Humbert may say or how he may justify himself, is her fault. Throughout the novel I was captivated by the story, awed by the prose, filled with sympathy by the actions and emotions of the characters, and even somewhat convicted (I, too, can be quite self-centered and manipulative). Lolita is an incredible literary experience, just as it is an intense cinematic experience, and it would be a shame to hate it, or ban it, or dismiss it completely simply because we are uncomfortable with its subject.

Posted by Jared at 09:00 AM | TrackBack

July 10, 2005

Henry James and The American Girl

Late last night I finished reading Washington Square by Henry James, the third book by that author that I have read (The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller being the other two). At this point, I think I can safely call myself a fan of James. I chose to read Washington Square after the considerable attention devoted to it in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and as I read and enjoyed the book, I decided I needed to write something about it, especially in light of having read Daisy Miller (post here).

My original intention was to highlight the extreme differences between the two books and see what conclusions I could draw from this contrast . . . but as I began to catalogue the differences in characters, settings, themes, and so forth, I soon realized that the difference between the two is purely a superficial one. Ultimately they are about much the same thing. I might almost call them mirror images of each other, because they seem like complete opposites, yet the philosophy of the one reflects the philosophy of the other exactly.

Daisy Miller is the story of a young American ingénue (the title character) and her experiences in Europe, told from the point of view of the worldly Winterbourne, an American who has lived in Europe for many years. Daisy, a native of New York and a very free-spirited sort, is travelling with her mother and younger brother, and the American community in Europe is decidedly disapproving of her impetuousity and ignorance of "acceptable" behavior. Ultimately, her innocence and her stubborness lead to her tragic death from Roman fever.

Washington Square is the story of a young American ingénue and her ill-fated romance with a fortune hunter. Catherine Sloper is a native of New York City (she lives in a house at the title location), residing there with her father and aunt. Her mother died shortly after giving birth to her. Catherine, a plain, shy, and unintelligent girl, is wooed by a handsome, silver-tongued young charmer named Morris Townsend, who has recently returned from squandering his modest fortune on a world tour.

Now very much in the market to wed, he has been encouraged in his attentions towards Catherine by the overly-romantic, meddlesome aunt, but her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, sees through Morris at once. He knows that Morris must be after Catherine's money, for why else would he be interested in the girl? Catherine lacks charm, intelligence and beauty, as her father well knows. But, Catherine has been swept off her feet, and while perceptive judgment of others' characters may not be one of her strengths, compassion and fidelity are. She has committed herself wholly to Morris Townsend, no matter what her father may say or do.

Unswayed by her father's threats to cut her off without a cent should she proceed to marry Morris, Catherine prepares for her wedding . . . but as soon as Morris sees that he has been beaten, and that Dr. Sloper will not be moved, he skips town. This is not done maliciously . . . He regards Catherine merely as a business opportunity which fell through. Catherine herself is left flat, with no one to turn to. Her father has grown even more cold and distant than he already was and her aunt is infatuated with Morris and believes he acted understandably.

As I said before, on the surface, the two novels could hardly be more different. The heroines are polar opposites of each other. Daisy is extroverted, adventurous, and beautiful, but thinks little of the feelings of others. She travels Europe with her mother and younger brother. Her father is alive, but out of the picture. Catherine is shy, quiet, extremely domestic, plain, and places her sense of duty to those she cares about above all other considerations. She lives at home with her father. Her mother is dead. An older brother died as an infant.

Daisy Miller follows Winterbourne around, and the novel's plot chiefly follows his fascination with Daisy and his perspective of her actions as we try to figure her out. His attitude, and the reader's, changes from immediate admiration of her gradually towards annoyance and even apathy. When he discovers at the end of the novel that he has misjudged her character, he is remorseful, but soon seems to have forgotten about her entirely.

The reader, too, is perhaps sorry to learn of the truly tragic nature of her death, but she is a difficult character to respect. She is, after all, a very foolish girl. None of the relationships she cultivates in the story, even her seemingly serious and even compromising involvment with Giovanelli, has any depth or permanence. She had no intention of marrying Giovanelli and would have eventually moved on to someone else. Her character, although we find out more about it over the course of the book, remains completely static.

Washington Square does not follow one particular character, alternating chiefly between Catherine, Aunt Lavinia, and Dr. Sloper. Morris remains as something of an enigma, in roughly the same way Daisy is, until near the end of the story. We are unsure whether his motives are pure, partially pure, or totally self-serving . . . although we suspect. This is the chief direction in which the plot moves as Catherine and Morris get closer to marrying one another.

When Catherine finally learns that she has misjudged his character, the sorrow felt by both her and the reader is of an entirely different nature from the feelings about Daisy. We are sorry for ever having liked or been sympathetic to Morris in any way. Knowing the truth, it is difficult to feel anything for him but contempt. The full sympathy of the reader in this case is for the character who was mistaken rather than the character they were mistaken about.

By the time this final split occurs, of course, there is no longer any doubt in the reader's mind that Catherine Sloper is no Daisy Miller. She has given up, or is prepared to give up, everything she knows (family, home, money) for Morris, and for Morris alone. The great tragedy is that she has "loved not wisely, but too well" and has given her heart to a man that did not deserve it. Unlike Daisy, Catherine is capable of inspiring a great deal of respect and admiration. She begins the book as a timid, weak-willed young girl, who James describes over and over as the antithesis of a typical heroine. By the end, she has become strong, assertive, and much wiser, while retaining her best quality: compassion.

Really, almost the only similarity between Daisy and Catherine, aside from nationality, is that they both suffer because they are innocent. But it is at that depth that the two novels truly connect. They share a number of important themes and ideas.

The most obvious of these is the discrepancy between appearance and reality, and the havoc this creates in the lives of the characters. Daisy Miller appears to be willfully violating the rules of decent social conduct and common sense, when in fact she is too innocent to really know any better. Winterbourne's failure to realize this and come to her rescue lead to her demise. To Catherine Sloper, Morris Townsend appears to be charming, handsome, and sincerely in love with her, although in reality his eye is on her money alone.

Dr. Sloper sees only his daughter's lack of wit and perception, and her stubborness in clinging to Morris, and is disgusted with her and disappointed in her as he has been her whole life. He fails to recognize that his daughter possesses a very strong character, but is emotionally vulnerable and inexperienced. While he believes that he has her best interests at heart, his approach to exposing Morris lacks compassion and sensitivity. He only cares that she, and by extension he, is being made a fool of, and he cannot stand this.

This problem with the characters' perceptions leads to a series of betrayals, both real and imagined. In Daisy Miller, the American circle in Europe believes that Daisy has betrayed the common values they all share, and Winterbourne comes to believe that this is the truth when he misinterprets her actions in the Colosseum. In reality, it is he who betrays her respect, trust, and friendship when he declares that he does not care what she does. This is such a blow to her that stops caring about anything. Additionally, Giovanelli plays at being her suitor and harboring affections for her, but he does not care enough to act with her best interests at heart, and so she contracts Roman fever and dies.

In Washington Square, Dr. Sloper believes that Catherine has betrayed the relationship between father and daughter by stubbornly and deliberately opposing his will. It does not help matters that he happens to be right. He is so put out by her actions that he is blinded by them, and cannot see that her relationship with Morris has ended. He dies still believing that she means to defy him, and so disinherits her almost entirely (only leaving her the house in Washington Square) in consequence. However, Dr. Sloper is actually the betrayer. He fails her as a father when he presents her with cold, logical facts and ultimatums rather than love and understanding. In the end, he cares little for Catherine herself, or her feelings. The only things that matter to him are that he is right, and that he should not be made to look a fool.

Morris' betrayal is obvious, though no less heartbreaking. Aunt Lavinia betrays Catherine by playing the part of intimate confidante to her and fostering the relationship at every step of the way, only to retreat to Morris' side at the crucial moment of his callous act of mercenary cowardice, leaving Catherine completely stranded and alone.

As I mentioned earlier, though, at the heart of both stories is the innocence of their young American heroines. Both Daisy and Catherine possess a certain helpless innocence which leads others to either take advantage of them or condemn them wrongfully. Daisy requires the guidance of a firm hand from someone who knows better than she. Catherine needs love and acceptance, someone who appreciates her and will take care of her. Neither of them have their needs fulfilled by their families. Daisy's mother is malleable and oblivious. Catherine's father is harsh and critical.

Both girls come in contact with strong, worldly, male characters who are in a position to provide them with what they need, and seem to be willing to do so, but remove their support at the crucial moment. The effects are shattering. In the end, Daisy Miller and Washington Square are potent and moving object lessons about the tragedy of mishandling innocence. I recommend both as excellent reads (although I enjoyed the latter somewhat more). I also recommend the recent film adaptation of Washington Square, which features some great performances and remains very faithful to the original.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

July 05, 2005

Children Waving Cheerfully Through the Window: John Le Carré and the Cold War in Microcosm

The book is a legend among Cold War spy novels, the standard by which all others are judged. But there is no glamorous 007-esque blend of shiny gadgets, spectacular explosions, and swimsuit models here. The fate of the world is not at stake here . . . at least not in the James Bond sense. No, this is a different sort of spy novel entirely. John Le Carré's 1963 work, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, was written while the author was working for the British Foreign Service in Berlin, and it shows.

When I first read this book in 9th grade, my predominant emotions were boredom and confusion. I was not caught up in the book, and so I did not quite follow its many subtle and intricate twists and turns. Having paid too little attention to the opening chapters, my mind was unable to keep pace as the plot turned itself upside down again and again . . . When I picked it up again a few weeks ago, the only thing I could remember was some vague notion of one character betraying another (and I got that completely wrong, it turned out) and what happens on the very last page.

The true genius of this book, which I did not quite grasp the first time, has three layers, which I will get to in a moment. First, a brief rundown of the plot: Alec Leamas is the British Head of Counter-Intelligence in Berlin, directing and controlling the flow of information from double agents on the other side of The Wall. He faces just one problem: The East German Head of Counter-Intelligence, a ruthless and efficient genius named Dieter Mundt. In fact, as the book opens Mundt has just finished cleaning out Leamas' entire network of operatives. Leamas is forced to return to England in disgrace and appear before the god-like "Control" (who somehow manages to come off looking both omniscient and clueless as his character is developed).

Leamas fully expects to be relieved of his post. He has felt himself slipping gradually for years now, and his best days of espionage work are behind him . . . but Control has one final operation in store before Leamas will be allowed to permanently come in from the cold: Destroy Dieter Mundt. It was probably shortly after this point that the book took a sharp turn down a back alley and lost me the first time through, so if (that is to say, when) you read it, be sure you're paying attention. However, I have unfolded quite enough of the plot for you. If I tell you anymore, I'll have to kill you.

The greatness of the book, as I mentioned before, is particularly apparent to me on three different levels. To begin with, there is the style in which the narrative is told. We follow the action of the plot from the perspectives of two and only two specific characters (namely, Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold). The author is very selective, however, about when and where we are allowed inside their heads. Most of the time I felt like I was watching from the vantage point of a camera the floats above and slightly behind the characters' heads, following them as they go about their business in the story.

This is effective because, although it was the factor that originally caused me to lose the thread of the plot in my younger days, it allows the reader to make a few leaps of logic for himself. The plot is such that, while somewhat convoluted, it is quite possible to follow, and the author does not insult the intelligence of his audience by awkwardly forcing dialogue to keep us up to speed. Telling the story in this way also subtly communicates the fact that Alec is playing a very dangerous game of deceit where he must keep even himself fooled in order to avoid a potentially fatal slip.

Secondly, the plot of the book is fantastic. The opening chapter is full of tension, suspense, and frustration, effectively setting the tone, mood, and theme for what is to come. The pool of major characters which the author draws from is small and easy to track (the true motives and natures of these characters less so). Once the premise has been established, we are plunged immediately into a labyrinth of plots, counterplots, and surprise twists. Alec may (in fact, does) see a number of these coming, but the reader does not. Through it all runs a quietly understated love story . . . very simple, very tenuous (so much so that the reader hardly realizes it is there sometimes). But it is this love story that gave the book its great human, emotional impact for me during the closing chapters. And, make no mistake, it is the human element that is really important . . . that is truly at stake here. More on that later.

I recently saw a documentary involving two main people (call them A and B, for simplicity's sake). The end of the documentary had A reading a letter to B which B had written as if he were A. The challenge of the scene was in remembering exactly whose words we were hearing . . . and this situation strikes me as somewhat analogous to the way we see espionage work in Le Carré's book. Intelligence is trumped by counter-intelligence, which is trumped in turn by counter-counter-intelligence, and nothing is ever quite what it appears to be. The quality and sophistication of the narrative with which we are presented makes one wonder why the movie industry ever decided that gargantuan pyrotechnic displays were superior to a good old-fashioned triple-cross in dominating the viewers' attention during a spy thriller.

However, it is the third layer that really makes the book an enduring classic: the philosophy. The philosophy of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is both explicitly and implicitly stated at various points during the narrative. The message it is trying to get across through this has, I think, two points which are of primary importance.

The first of these is stated at the very end of chapter 18, in a conversation between Alec and Fiedler. Fiedler is Mundt's second-in-command, and they respect each other's abilities, but Fiedler is a Jew and Mundt hates him for it. Fiedler grows to hate Mundt for his prejudice. (Side note: For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I invariably associated Fiedler with Wilson in my imagination.) Alec is a pragmatist and an atheist, and rarely thinks beyond the immediate business at hand. Fiedler, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, a philosopher, and his insistent inquiries into the ideology of the West both annoy and baffle Leamas. Their final private exchange proceeds as follows:

"I thought a lot about you," Fiedler added. "I thought about the talk we had -- you remember -- about the motor."

"What motor?"

Fiedler smiled. "I'm sorry, that is a direct translation. I mean 'Motor,' the engine, spirit, urge; whatever Christians call it."

"I'm not a Christian."

Fiedler shrugged. "You know what I mean." He smiled again, "the thing that embarrasses you . . . I'll put it another way . . . would you kill a man, an innocent man --"

"Mundt's a killer himself."

"Suppose he wasn't. Suppose it were me they wanted to kill: would London do it?"

"It depends . . . it depends on the need . . ."

"Ah," said Fiedler contentedly, "it depends on the need. Like Stalin, in fact. The traffic accident and the statistics. That is a great relief."


"You must get some sleep," said Fiedler . . . as he reached the door he looked back and said, "We're all the same, you know, that's the joke."

Both sides in the Cold War, we are being reminded, are loudly preaching high-minded but conflicting ideals to the entire world. But in the seedy underbelly of government, where intelligence agencies work ceaselessly to undermine the enemy, is either side really practicing what they preach? Are they not both pretending to some degree to be that which they are not? For both communism and democracy, the end justifies the means when no one is watching.

The second point (dovetailing with the first) is made in a conversation between Liz (Elizabeth Gold, Alec's lover) and Alec near the end of the book (severely edited to avoid major plot points):

"It gives him a chance to secure his position," Leamas replied curtly.

"By killing more innocent people? It doesn't seem to worry you much."

"Of course it worries me. It makes me sick with shame and anger and . . . But I've been brought up differently, Liz; I can't see it in black and white. People who play this game take risks . . . London won -- that's the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it's paid off, and that's the only rule." As he spoke his voice rose, until finally he was nearly shouting.

"You're trying to convince yourself," Liz cried. "They've done a wicked . . . he was good, Alec; I know he was . . ."

"What the hell are you complaining about," Leamas demanded roughly. "Your party's always at war, isn't it? Sacrificing the individual to the mass. That's what it says. Socialist reality: fighting night and day -- that relentless battle -- that's what they say, isn't it? At least you've survived. I never heard that Communists preached the sanctity of human life -- perhaps I've got it wrong," he added sarcastically. "I agree, yes, I agree, you might have been destroyed. That was on the cards . . . So you might have died -- today, next year or twenty years on -- in a prison in the worker's paradise. And so might I. But I seem to remember the Party is aiming at the destruction of a whole class. Or have I got it wrong? . . .

"Don't complain about the terms, Liz; they're Party terms. A small price for a big return. One sacrificed for many . . .

"There's only one law in this game . . . Leninism -- the expediency of temporary alliances. What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? . . .

"This is a war . . . It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing at all beside other wars -- the last or the next."

"Oh God," said Liz softly. "You don't undertand. You don't want to. You're trying to persuade yourself. It's far more terrible, what they're doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill . . ."

"Christ Almighty!" Leamas cried. "What else have men done since the world began? I don't believe in anything, don't you see -- not even destruction or anarchy. I'm sick, sick of killing but I don't see what else they can do. They don't proselytise; they don't stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or for God or whatever it is. They're the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high."

"You're wrong," Liz declared hopelessly; "they're more wicked than all of us . . . Because of their contempt. Contempt for what is real and good; contempt for love, contempt for . . ."

"Yes," Leamas agreed, suddenly weary. "That is the price they pay; to despise God and Karl Marx in the same sentence. If that is what you mean . . . But it's the world, it's mankind that's gone mad. We're a tiny price to pay . . . but everywhere's the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men written off for nothing. And you, your party -- God knows it was built on the bodies of ordinary people . . ."

As he spoke Liz remembered the drab prison courtyard, and the wardress saying: "It is a prison for those who slow down the march . . . for those who think they have the right to err."

As Liz and Alec shout defensively at each other, they are enveloped by an enormous gray area, where flashes of black and white show infrequently through the haze. I challenge anyone to read this book and, at the end, present me with a clear-cut list of the good guys and the bad guys. It simply can't be done (or, if it can, no two lists will look alike) because invariably you will be struck with the conflict of whether to judge characters consistently based solely on their actions or based on which "side" they are on and what you know in your head they are fighting for. What Le Carré is doing here is what no one involved in a war likes to do: He is zooming the camera in on individual human faces, and we observe with horror that some of our enemies' faces look like ours and some of our allies' faces look like theirs.

As I read the book, I thought of all the different views one could get on the nature of the Cold War simply from all of the different labels the combatants apply to each other and themselves. How many communist nations during the Cold War had the word "Democratic" in them? But we call their government totalitarian. The Western world, of course, stands for Democracy and Freedom, right? But they call our governments imperialist. Are we both right in a sense in what we say about the opposing side? An imperialist government is one that practices "the policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations." Is that not exactly what we were doing throughout the fifties and sixties?

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold cuts directly to the ugly heart of the ideological conflict of the Cold War, exposing to us the fact that both sides had at least one thing in common: They both used any and all means necessary (no matter how treacherous or foul) to achieve the appearance of a utopian end which could never co-exist in reality alongside such vile methods of implementation. The double life that one of those two superpowers was living eventually disconnected the ideal so far from the reality that it self-destructed. The double life that the other superpower leads has only this going for it, that it is only really practiced outside the borders of that nation. I should have hoped that the example of the Soviet Union would have taught us that much, at least.

Lest I get too far off topic, though, let me just wrap this up with one final thought. The book employs a fantastic metaphor from a combination of Alec's memory and his imagination. And it connects beautifully to what the book is talking about on the most basic level . . . more basic than the global or the ideological or even the national: at the level of what Alec calls "ordinary, crummy people." It is the recurring, nightmarish image of a small car with smiling, waving children in the backseat, smashed to pieces by two enormous trucks.

Posted by Jared at 03:14 AM | TrackBack

May 23, 2005

Understanding Keats

I bent slightly at the waist and peered apathetically through the tiny window of CPO #1134. After two weeks of eagerly checking the mail three and four times a day, I couldn't handle the disappointment anymore. And, true to form, as soon as I stopped expecting my package slip to be waiting, there it was. I calmly carried it up to the front desk and immediately used my CPO key to tear into the box they handed me in return.

Packing peanuts went everywhere in a spray of white foam, floating listlessly to the floor of MSC-1, but I barely noticed . . . There it was: The long-awaited purchase. The coveted UPS package. My own personal cloth-bound, dust-jacketed, shrink-wrapped Holy Grail, Flannery O'Connor herself smiling up at me from the shiny black cover, her last name sprawling under her picture in large, flowing white script . . .

Collected Works

Wise Blood
A Good Man Is Hard to Find
The Violent Bear It Away
Everything That Rises Must Converge
Essays and Letters

I read carefully over the titles listed under the name before gathering up the scattered peanuts, tossing the box, and removing the shrink-wrap. A quick glance over the table of contents told me that I held over 1200 pages of pulchritudinous prose in my hands, while a quick glance at my watch told me I had just ten minutes to get to Philosophy class. I do believe I floated all the way over to Longview Hall . . .

I was extremely distracted during the first hour of class, barely able to wait to show off my new treasure. I briefly discussed it with Ashley (who was gratifyingly appreciative) at the beginning of our ten-minute break . . . then made a beeline for the office of Dr. Coppinger. I breezed by the secretary (distracted by a phone call) and ducked inside his door.

He was looking quite casual today as he moved about his office tidying up, decked out in a blue Hawaiian shirt punctuated by tropical yellow flowers. I greeted him and we talked for a second or two before he spotted O'Connor under my arm. He took it reverently in both hands and admired it for a few moments. Opening to the table of contents and leafing through a few sections for closer inspection, he declared himself to be officially jealous. He owns numerous O'Connor works, but no handy single-volume version of them all. My Collected Works also contains about nine short stories and an essay or two not published in most collections . . . and, of course, The Letters.

He wanted to know where I got it and we talked a bit more about that and other related matters, then I noted that my break would soon be over and moved towards the door. He saw me to the outer office door, as usual, and with the usual pleasant farewells, but I thought I detected a slight anomaly of tone. Just before I exited, he made the oddest repressed-strangling noise . . . sort of as if he were physically forcing his hands to his own throat in order to resist the urge to hit me over the back of the head with the nearest blunt object and abscond with the book. The image amused me so much I laughed to myself all the way back to class.

During the second half of Philosophy, even Dr. Batts noticed my O'Connor sitting out on the desk as he handed out a quiz. "Oooo!" he exclaimed, pausing for a moment to stare. "Lucky you!" I could only nod in agreement. I think I'll sleep with it under my pillow tonight.

Suddenly, I think I understand John Keats a lot better . . . My somewhat bemused English Lit journal of last February comes to mind. Does increased identification with a Romantic poet make me a healthy English major or a lost cause? (Please don't say "Yes.")

Posted by Jared at 11:48 PM | TrackBack

May 02, 2005

Reading Update on Command

As agonizing as these little lists of questions are to answer, their lure is utterly irresistible to me. Thanks, Wilson. It's funny to think how different this would have looked three years ago, just before I started college . . . Anyway:

* What book, other than Fahrenheit 451, would you want to be?

Something long, fun, and not likely to run out of readers anytime soon. I'm essentially an escapist at heart, so my first choice would probably be a fantasy like The Chronicles of Narnia. Something like The Complete Sherlock Holmes (or any of my "desert island" books below) would be a lot of fun, as well.

* Have you ever been really struck by a fictional character?

Geez . . . only all the time. A double handful of books have made me cry, and thrice as many more have left me quiet and introspective for days, but as for a specific character that I must point to forthwith . . . Well, most recently I would have to note both Asbury Fox ("The Enduring Chill" by Flannery O'Connor) and Ambrose ("Lost in the Funhouse" by John Barth).

* What was the last book that you bought?

Flannery O'Connor: Collected Works, Great Novels and Short Stories of E. M. Forster, and William Faulkner: Novels 1930-1935 . . . I decided to snag a little summer reading and beef up my personal library at the same time.

* What was the last book you read?

Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt and Everything That Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'Connor

* Which books are you reading?

I am officially in the midst of summer, so I've taken a large bite . . . *clears throat* . . . The Complete Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton, Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence, Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth, Cobra by Timothy Zahn, and The King of Torts by John Grisham.

* Which five books would you take to a desert island?

I'm pretty sure I'd self-destruct if I actually had to choose only five books to take along . . . but discounting anything that would actually be useful to me, here are a few possibilities:

The Bible (beefiest version I can find, Apocrypha a must, in English and Spanish if possible, plenty of supplementary material in the form of concordances and so forth)

The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Collected Works by Flannery O'Connor

Alternately, I would be just as content for a time with all four volumes of the Norton Anthologies of American and British Literature . . . although if I didn't get off the island I would go crazy wanting to read more than just the included excerpts of larger works or wishing I could delve into other writings by the favorite authors I picked out.

* To whom are you going to send this erm... let's say confession...and why? (three people) Hrm . . . How about a few fellow readers who haven't done it already . . . Say, Ardith, Andy, and Scholl.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

May 01, 2005

May's Featured Books

5/26 - Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (o o o o o)

Dr. Azar Nafisi taught English Literature for nearly 20 years (from the time of the revolution in 1979 until her departure in 1997) in the intellectually restrictive climate of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and the almost equally strict regime which followed. During that time, she and her students studied the controversial works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and (of course) Vladimir Nabokov, first in a public university classroom, and later in the secret privacy of her own home. Part soul-searching autobiography, part historical exposé, and part witty and insightful literary criticism, this is an incredible story told by an equally incredible narrator about free thought in an atmosphere of unimaginable repression and fear.

5/16 - The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason (o o o o)

Billed as an "intellectual suspense" novel, this book follows a few days in the lives of four Princeton roommates as their senior year comes to an end. In the midst of all the usual end-of-semester madness two of them, Tom and Paul, are close to cracking a fiendishly difficult code and unlocking the startling secrets of a 15th Century Renaissance text called the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a real-life work which has stumped literary types for centuries. But these two are not the only ones who are obsessed with solving the text, or enjoying the academic prestige it will bring, and events begin to spin out of control as Paul gets closer to the final answer.

The book largely does an excellent job of juggling discoveries in the Hypnerotomachia with outside complications and only rarely does it feel as though these intrusions are interfering with the important portion of the story. The extensive asides about the history and traditions of Princeton are almost as fascinating as the insights into Renaissance lore . . . all worked seamlessly into the plot. The book's gradual revelations of its secrets seemed almost perfectly paced, as well . . . coming out ever so slowly, but not too slowly, and serving to slowly develop the characters and their histories as well.

What set this book apart from the standard academic treasure hunting pot-boiler for me was the excellent writing (filled with vivid, engaging metaphors, profound philosophical ruminations, and literary allusions both obscure and well-known), and the deeply human element. The book spoke to me on a number of levels, and I identified very closely with the main character. He and his friends remind me of me and my friends at a time of the year when I'm beginning to miss them all.

I don't know for sure whether it is simply because I feel myself to be in his position in many ways, but the book's treatment of the serious college student's choice between dedicated academic pursuits versus career-and-family rang especially true. The meaningful way in which Tom works through the loss of his father by becoming involved with his father's peculiar lifelong obsession is also a large part of what makes this story worthwhile. Overall, the story and the writing have a great deal to offer even a casual reader, and, although the story flags at times, I would recommend it quite highly to anyone interested in literature and/or history, especially if they are within a stone's throw of their college years.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi (o o o o o)

Dr. Azar Nafisi taught English Literature for nearly 20 years (from the time of the revolution in 1979 until her departure in 1997) in the intellectually restrictive climate of Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and the almost equally strict regime which followed. During that time, she and her students studied the controversial works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Jane Austen, and (of course) Vladimir Nabokov, first in a public university classroom, and later in the secret privacy of her own home. Part soul-searching autobiography, part historical exposé, and part witty and insightful literary criticism, this is an incredible story told by an equally incredible narrator about free thought in an atmosphere of unimaginable repression and fear. [Read More]
Posted by Jared at 12:00 AM | TrackBack

April 28, 2005

Freud for the Masses: A Brief Examination of Psychology in Cinema

Psychology and people with psychological disorders have not fared well overall in the hands of Hollywood. When the psychology we see in movies is not either completely wrong, being employed for evil purposes (of all things), or something to laugh about, it is often the object of a great deal of disdain. Somehow psychology is always the cold, clinical voice of modern science, droning at us to straighten up and get in line while missing the point of what makes life worth living. Psychology is just trying to break the beauty and intricate design behind the human brain, the choices we make with it, and the personalities it forms into a mass of chemical impulses which we have no real control over.

Anyway, all of this could easily make for a rather large and sprawling subject, but I’ll try to approach it in as orderly and brief a manner as possible while covering as wide a range as I can. And I know there are plenty of movies I don't talk about here that I could have . . . It's just that none of them came to mind while I was writing. Hopefully this is a good cross-section and everyone has seen at least some of these. I hadn't realized before I really started thinking about it in-depth how important and commonplace psychology is in the movies.

I know that often elements of psychology in fiction are laughably erroneous, but very few sterling examples of this leap immediately to mind because most of the time I probably don’t even notice the mistakes like I would in, say, a “historical” movie. Two that come particularly to mind as probable offenders are Don’t Say a Word and Gothika. Both belong to the subgenre of so-called “psychological thrillers.”

In the former, a psychologist must extract the location of long-lost stolen goods from a deranged woman in order to save his family from the original thieves. In the latter (which contains heavy supernatural elements), a psychologist who is baffled by a particularly bad case in the asylum where she works suddenly finds herself interred in the same asylum and experiencing the same symptoms.

A movie character can exhibit the most bizarre and unheard of behavior in the world as long as the writer slaps the label “psychological disorder” on it. Of course, I don’t know how many of these actually exist . . . probably all of them do in some form. I hear that even the odd behavior of Dr. Strangelove's right hand has a real-world basis. In Clean Slate and 50 First Dates, major characters wake up every morning with their memories of the day before gone (in both movies this is played for laughs). A minor character in 50 First Dates loses his short-term memory every ten seconds.

In Memento, a man loses his short-term memory every fifteen to twenty minutes. The movie’s “gimmick” is that the scenes are placed in reverse order so that we are almost as disoriented as he is each time his memory disappears until the movie’s secret is finally revealed. Nurse Betty has a woman go into shock after witnessing the brutal murder of her husband and then believe that she is a character in her favorite soap opera.

And, ranging quite far afield into the realms of the fantastic, The Butterfly Effect has a young psychology major with a history of insanity in his family discovering that he can travel back in time to key moments in his life by reading his journal accounts of those events and can even manipulate the situation. Although this movie is more of a cautionary tale, raising tough questions about the deep effects that even seemingly small things can have on peoples’ futures, it does pretend to operate within a pseudoscientific psychological framework.

I can go on quite a bit longer about the constant portrayals of some of the more “common” disorders, particularly amnesia, obsessive/compulsive disorder, various phobias, and multiple-personality disorder/schizophrenia. Amnesia is a very widely used plot device. Soap operas (so I’m told) pull it out at every opportunity. It forms the entire basis for a number of movie plots. In The Bourne Identity, a CIA-trained assassin fails to complete an assignment and loses his memory when he is shot and falls into the ocean. He spends the rest of the movie trying to discover who he is. Amnesia is the only possible way to explain the decades-long absence of a missing member of the Russian royal family when she reappears in the classic Anastasia, although ultimately the real Anastasia’s fate is left up in the air. Amnesia is used to particularly good effect in The Majestic, where a Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted unjustly during the McCarthy Era, loses his memory in a car accident and is mistaken in a small town for a local hero from World War II, long believed dead. Even Kermit the Frog is a temporary victim of amnesia when he is hit by a car in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

Characters with obsessive/compulsive disorder are usually at least partially comedic in my experience. Extremely popular lately is the brilliant but ultra-neurotic detective Adrian Monk from the TV series Monk, who is terrified of germs and touches every pole and post he passes in the street. Another example is the main character from Matchstick Men, a con artist who opens and closes every door three times before passing through them, has a number of nervous tics, and spends days at a time compulsively cleaning his house. While both characters have experiences with personal tragedy, most of the time we watch them for their amusing idiosyncrasies.

Phobias can, of course, play either a serious or humorous role in the movies. Vertigo has Jimmy Stewart’s character crippled by his fear of heights, with tragic results (see post with Freudian analysis). What About Bob?, on the other hand, provides with a very sympathetic but hilarious title character, an extremely clingy patient who drives his therapist nuts (literally). The real gag of the movie is that the psychologist is ultimately far less stable than his patient, all initial appearances to the contrary aside. The joke (as usual in the movies) is on psychology.

Multiple-personality disorder has been a popular (often cop-out) plot twist to drop into movies ever since Psycho terrified movie audiences in 1960. The character of Norman Bates, based on a real-life serial killer, has murdered his mother and taken on her personality in addition to his own. The mother half of his personality will, in turn, commit murder in a jealous rage to keep her son to herself. In Secret Window, an author who is being tormented by an insane stalker who claims his story has been stolen discovers (after the stalker has left a trail of bodies in his wake) that this killer is another personality living inside of him.

Fight Club pulls a similar trick, when two main characters with seemingly opposite personalities are revealed to be one and the same near the end of the movie. Identity goes one step better, with ten characters, all trapped at a motel in a heavy rainstorm and dying off one by one, who are revealed to exist together in the head of one man, a convicted murderer. In all of these cases, people with multiple-personality disorder are dangerous killers, and we are made to feel very afraid of them.

This isn’t the whole story, though. A Beautiful Mind, which tells the true story of Nobel Prize-winner John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia, won the Best Picture Oscar for 2001. Pi, a disturbing head trip in which the main character (another incredibly brilliant mathematician . . . what is it about those guys, anyway?) may or may not be a paranoid schizophrenic, won a number of awards as well.

People don’t exclusively enjoy being frightened by people who hear voices in their heads. The interesting thing to me about Nash’s struggle in particular is that he finally denies medication and other treatments, determined to beat the problem on his own. Often in movies we find that the psychologists’ solution is far from the best option. People like to watch their fellow humans beating diseases of the mind on their own, without having to rely on head doctors.

Then, of course, we have the evil psychologists, like in The Manchurian Candidate, who will brainwash you as soon as look at you. In the eerie Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, psychologists might be benign medical professionals who are just there to help, or they might be megalomaniacs, devoted to exploiting the human mind to suit their own needs. Certainly at the end of movie, the former explanation seems to be the true one (the rest of the movie is revealed to have been the paranoid delusion of a lunatic . . . probably). However, by that time we’ve already seen an evil doctor use a hypnotized subject to commit murder for him multiple times.

And then there is the crème de la crème of villainous psychologists, Anthony Hopkins’ most chilling character, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lecter of The Silence of the Lambs and its sequels. Lecter is an evil genius times twenty. Formerly a psychologist moonlighting as a serial killer in a previous life, now he uses his deadly wiles to play mind games with prison authorities and the FBI analysts who come to him for help in their criminal profiling.

Really, though, you never know quite how a psychologist is going to be portrayed when he or she crops up at random in a movie. The big-city psychologist in What Women Want is self-centered and bored by her patients and their problems. The small-town psychologist in Groundhog Day is a comical character, well-meaning, but left uncertain, even baffled, by anomalies. Malcolm in The Sixth Sense (another moving that tosses psychology and the supernatural into the mix together) is a psychologist whose failure to provide a proper diagnosis in the past had dire consequences for both him and his patient. He is compassionate, insightful, and desperate to redeem himself this time around.

My favorites of all psychology-related movies, however, are those which communicate a positive and valuable message about life and the human spirit. Unfortunately for the psychology involved, it is usually depicted as the problem rather than the solution. I realize, of course, that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater when it comes to psychotherapy and new medications. In fact, I happen to have a great deal of faith in the merits of both. However, it is always possible to get carried away with them as well, and some movies that I really enjoy address this problem from different perspectives.

Man of la Mancha is a musical based on Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes and starring Peter O’Toole as the title character. Considering that the book was written about 400 years ago and is set in about that same time period, one might wonder how it comes to mention psychology. Technically, it doesn’t. However, in the musical, Don Quixote’s perception of reality is rather skewed . . . in fact, he is basically crazy. But he is also in pursuit of an idealistic dream based on virtue, chivalry, and charity.

As a cynic, I may not have a lot of faith in his ability to accomplish his mission of bringing light back into the world (or whatever), but I can certainly agree with the principle of what Quixote is trying to do. His relatives, though, don’t see things quite the same way. They feel that he is making them look stupid, and send a man out to shock him back to reality. Their idea is that people cannot be allowed to pursue even the most worthy of causes if they have to live in a crazy, made-up fantasy to do it. Don Quixote is roughly shocked back into reality and winds up totally demoralized, lying on his deathbed before a final musical number rekindles his dying spirits.

The point of this movie is brought home nicely in a more modern context in one of my favorite movies: Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd, the kindest, friendliest man in the world. Elwood’s one and only flaw seems to be his best friend, an invisible six-foot rabbit named Harvey. His sister, Veta Louise, and his niece, Myrtle Mae, are sick of his eccentricities leaving them socially bereft, and they make arrangements to have him committed . . . but a funny thing happens on the way to the asylum. Veta Louise is committed by mistake and Elwood wanders off before anyone notices the mix-up.

The audience soon realizes that Harvey really does exist, but the asylum doctors are a good bit slower. Elwood really is a great guy. At one point, when he’s talking about what he and Harvey do with their time, it struck me that it’s a pity that Christians don’t witness like this more often:

We sit in the bars, have a drink or two, and play the juke box. Very soon the faces of the other people turn towards me and they smile . . . We came as strangers - soon we have friends. They come over. They sit with us. They drink with us. They talk to us. They tell us about the great big terrible things they've done and the great big wonderful things they're going to do. Their hopes, their regrets. Their loves, their hates. All very large, because nobody ever brings anything small into a bar. Then I introduce them to Harvey, and he's bigger and grander than anything they can offer me. When they leave, they leave impressed.

Elwood (once he is finally rounded up) defies all attempts at psychoanalysis, saying, “Well, I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it.” The movie suggests that that is the entire purpose of psychology, to return us to reality, even if reality is the last thing we need. As Elwood is about to receive his treatment, another character observes, “After this he'll be a perfectly normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are!” Movies of this type seem to basically be saying, “Psychology calls this madness. Well, if it is, aren’t we better off crazy?”

Garden State came out just last year, and it is one of my favorite recent releases. It has a great deal to say to the present-day generation of twentysomethings left dead in the water by a search for purpose that has led only to things like apathy, hedonism, and overmedication.

We are introduced to Andrew Largeman as he lies on his back in his bed, staring up at the ceiling with a totally expressionless face. The room around him is a shocking-sterile white. The phone rings, but he lets the answering machine get it, and his father is heard weeping and telling him that his mother has just died. We find out that he is originally from New Jersey, but hasn’t been home in nine years.

As he begins to reconnect with old friends back home, we see that relations are very strained between him and his father for some reason. And then there’s Sam, the very unique girl he randomly meets at a doctor’s office. As the story unfolds, we find out that, at a young age, Largeman was accidentally responsible for his mother becoming a quadriplegic. His father is a psychologist and has basically kept him on emotion-deadening medication for his entire life.
Largeman’s relationship with Sam deepens, and the two of them spend an entire day on a quest around the area with Largeman’s friend Mark. Only Mark knows what they are looking for, but, as so often happens, in the end it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is important.

Talking with his father later that night, Largeman announces his decision to go off of the medication: “This is my life, Dad. This is it. I spend 26 years waiting for something else to start. So no, I don't think it's too much to take on because it's everything there is. I see now it's all there is.” He talks about how numb he has been to everything for his entire life. His dad only wanted them all to be happy and normal, but there was no way to accomplish that through the methods he was attempting to use. Later on, Sam brings up this point again: “I know it hurts. But it's life, and it's real. And sometimes it f--king hurts, but it's life, and it's pretty much all we’ve got.” The movie states that we’re better off facing life, good, bad, and ugly, than hiding behind a medical solution to life’s problems.

I really enjoyed most of the movies I’ve discussed in here. Some of them are even on my top favorites list. But I think it is worthwhile to recognize that, when it comes to their picture of psychologists and the disorders they study and help treat, we are dealing with an incomplete picture more often than a complete one. I still think many of the messages (particularly in the last two) are worthy of consideration from one angle or another, but if Intro to Psychology this semester has taught me nothing else, I have at least learned a bit about what psychology is and, more importantly, what psychology isn’t.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

April 26, 2005

Amy Tan and the Literary Undertow

I had absolutely no intention of writing anything about the story "Half and Half" . . . until I read it. The first sentence sucked me right in and I remained completely absorbed until the end. The story moved gracefully in and out of multiple time periods, beginning at its end and ending at its beginning . . . both of which are the same point. The story is complex, but easy to follow, and through it run individual threads of no immediately apparent importance, but of endless fascination, which are tied into the narrative one by one as the pages continue to turn. I was absolutely convinced that I was reading a true story about a personal experience until I turned to the biography of the author . . . and even knowing the story was fictional made it no less real to me.

The story is told in the first person by Rose Hsu Jordan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco . . . although I don't believe her first name is mentioned once in the story. She is sitting in her mother's house, wondering how to break the news of her upcoming divorce, knowing that her mother will not simply accept that her daughter is getting divorced. She will want Rose to fight it.

The thought of this sends her mind flying back into her memories of the past. She remembers how she first met her husband, how they came to be married, and the reasons why they are now getting a divorce. Then her mind reels back even farther, to the day when her mother lost her faith in God, and the day Rose herself began to believe in fate.

Her father, deciding that he wants to fish, has taken his wife and seven children (Janice, Ruth, Rose, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Bing) to a secluded beach near Devil's Slide. A series of unfortunate mischances causes Rose to be the only one watching Bing, and that from a distance, when the four-year old boy tumbles into the ocean and disappears. She is completely frozen, saying nothing, unable to decide what to do or how to react until, after an undetermined amount of time, someone else notices Bing's absence.

The body is not recovered that day, and early the next morning Rose's mother takes her and returns to the beach where Bing was lost. Mrs. Hsu speaks with God there, asking (with complete confidence) for her son back, thanking God for the lesson and promising to be more attentive next time. Nothing happens.

Next she tries to pay back an "ancestral debt," throwing a treasured ring into the water so that the "Coiling Dragon who lives in the sea" will return Bing to her. Her confidence is still complete, but Bing still does not appear after an hour of waiting.

Next, relying on her nengkan (belief that she can do anything she puts her mind to) she throws an inner tube attached to a fishing line off the edge of the reef. The line snaps, but they stand and watch as the inner tube is sucked repeatedly into a partially submerged cavern, emerging each time without any sign of being until finally it comes out completely deflated.

Finally, at that moment, Mrs. Hsu realizes that nothing she can do will bring Bing back, and her faith is destroyed. Returning to the present, Rose tells her mother that there is no hope to save her marriage . . . no point in even trying. "This is not hope," her mother replies. "Not reason. This is your fate. This is your life, what you must do."

Rose is left alone with her thoughts: "I think about Bing, how I knew he was in danger, how I let it happen. I think about my marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention. But somehow, when you lose something you love, faith takes over. You have to pay attention to what you lost. You have to undo the expectation."

Her mother used to carry a small, white, leatherette Bible, but since the loss of Bing the Bible has been wedged underneath the leg of a crooked table, "a way for her to correct the imbalances of life." Mrs. Hsu pretends to ignore it, but she knows that it is there. Now, Rose lifts the table leg and slides the Bible out. It is still clean, even after twenty years, and she remembers that her mother wrote in it before placing it there. Under "Deaths," she finds "Bing Hsu" written lightly in pencil.

What does it all mean, exactly? Rose has been letting life happen to her for twenty years now. Ever since the loss of her brother when she was fourteen she has felt locked into a predetermined path. She cannot make decisions (the source of conflict with her husband) because she doesn't think any decision will affect the outcome of events. If she doesn't learn to have faith, in herself and in her life as much as in God, this is how things will be for her forever.

The key is in her changed perspective on fate at the end of the story. She now perceives fate, not as predetermined, but as self-determined. When, after her mother’s efforts to retrieve Bing, she is so “angry . . . that everything had failed” them, what she is not realizing is that she has also failed herself. Her mother, I think, has allowed faith to take over; hasn't given in to fate. Bing's name, written under "Deaths," is "in erasable pencil." Realizing this, if she realizes this, what steps will Rose take now?

Posted by Jared at 01:10 PM | TrackBack

April 25, 2005

Katherine Anne Porter: Staring into the Abyss

A lot of people really hate stream-of-consciousness writing, but I am not one of those people. Sure, it's hard to get used to at first, and sometimes it can get annoying, but it makes for some rather spectacular writing most of the time. Stream-of-consciousness has the potential to completely eliminate the distance between the reader and the reading, and the result is not merely a good story, but an intimate experience.

The key to this is an interesting "voice." Virginia Woolf in "The Mark on the Wall," for instance, allows us a chance to climb inside of her own head and peer around. Other talented authors give us the opportunity to look in on a mind whose perspective we might never otherwise experience. Benjy, the retarded man in The Sound and the Fury, will of course come to mind. And to this growing list of interesting narrators I add the dying old woman in Katherine Anne Porter's The Jilting of Granny Weatherall.

Granny Weatherall, as her name might suggest, has not had an easy life. But she doesn't let this get her down. She has met every challenge as it surfaced: the death of her husband, the death of a child, the hard work of providing for and raising a family alone. Now, at the age of nearly eighty, she feels she has nothing to prove to anyone. As she lies in bed, sick and (though she doesn't accept that this is so) with the life ebbing slowly out of her, a steady stream of visitors pass, some by her bed, some through her mind, and she cannot always tell the difference between the two.

Doctor Harry and Granny's daughter, Cornelia, plus Father Connolly and two of her other children, Lydia and Jimmy, float in and out of the room, and all gather together around her in the last moments of her life. But in her mind they are joined by her dead daughter, Hapsy, her dead husband, John, and George, the man who stood her up at the altar when she was a young woman. From her memories of these people and reactions to them we begin to form a picture of her life and character within a very short space of time. Two things about Granny are crucial: Her buried feelings about George and what he did to her, and the state of her salvation. These two things are intertwined, but must be approached separately.

About the former, we begin to see that it has shaped her life far more than she would want to admit, even to herself. As she thinks back on what she has accomplished in her time on earth, her thoughts continually return to George. She feels an uneasy satisfaction with regards to him. Her mind never strays very far from what he did to her during her last hours, but always when she thinks of him her reaction is smug. The reader almost feels that everything Granny ever did, everything she ever accomplished throughout her life was entirely in response to being jilted. She had to prove to George that she never needed him . . . that life was possible without him. But George wasn't around to notice or care, and in the end she was most desperate to prove it to herself. As her time to die approaches and she thinks frantically of all she has left undone, we wonder whether she has truly convinced herself or not.

As for the state of her salvation, she feels she has the afterlife completely under control. She is secure with her spiritual state. After all, she has a "comfortable understanding with a few favorite saints who [will clear] a straight road to God for her." She is not afraid to die . . . "the whole bottom dropped out of the world" for her once already, and there was someone waiting to catch her then. And yet, when death comes, she is still "taken by surprise."

Death is a great, black void, looming in front of her, and her own tiny light is rapidly dwindling. The great darkness begins to swallow her up, and she calls out for that sign from God . . . that sign which lets her know He is waiting to catch her as she falls. What happens next I feel incapable of re-expressing, so I'll just quote the story:

"For the second time there was no sign. Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house. She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away. Oh, no, there's nothing more cruel than this -- I'll never forgive it. She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light."

As she blows out the light of her own life, you know that Granny Weatherall will know nothing but lonely, cold darkness for the rest of eternity. What could she have learned . . . What should she have learned from the first jilting that might have saved her from the second? Why, having already experienced a taste of the emptiness of the abyss, was she so complacent when approaching it a second time?

A life spent full of activity and incident, holding back painful memories or trying to wash them away "through works" as it were, is no solution to the pressing problem of eternal security. What happens to Granny Weatherall is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, ever . . . how shocking to watch it happen while we are inside her head.

Posted by Jared at 02:28 AM | TrackBack

April 24, 2005

William Faulkner: The Leap from a Mad Carousel

Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is a very fortunate little boy. This may not be immediately apparent in the initial reading of Barn Burning, but it is true nevertheless. The only other work of Faulkner's, long or short, which I have read is The Sound and the Fury and believe me, compared to all four of its main characters, Sarty is lucky.

Sarty is a ten-year old boy growing up on the move in Mississippi. He travels from home to home with his father, mother, aunt, older brother, and two "bovine" older sisters. The family never stays in one place long because the father, Abner Snopes (a Confederate soldier turned horse rustler during the Civil War), is a barn burner. He has a nasty temper, a terrible grudge against property owners, and his weapon ("the one weapon for the preservation of integrity") is fire. Snopes arrives at each new destination looking for someone who will give offense to him if properly provoked, and when he finds that person, he burns down their barn.

As I finished The Sound and the Fury I had the strong sense that, were I able to turn just one more page I would find the book beginning again with Benjy's perspective. The book was like the cursed carousel from Something Wicked This Way Comes. You climb on and it begins to spin like mad . . . color, flashing, blinding . . . lights, strobing, whirling, dancing . . . noise, half-music, crashing, deafening . . . and you can't get off. Around and around and around and around, and as you continue to go around, revisiting (reliving) the same little path over and over again, you get old, and then you die. And you've spent your whole life trapped in the craziness, living and reliving more times than you can count.

Life is like this for Sarty, too. As "Barn Burning" opens we find him in a small store where a local Justice of the Peace holds court. His father is on trial for having burned a man's barn, but there is not enough evidence and he is released with orders to leave the area.

They exit the store and we see that this outcome was expected. The rest of the family is already packed into the wagon with all of their belongings, and they have a new destination: the DeSpain house. As soon as they've arrived at the little two-room job where they'll be taking up residence, Abner takes Sarty to go "have a word" with Mr. DeSpain.

When Sarty sees the large, wealthy DeSpain house for the first time, he immediately feels a "surge of peace and joy" because here, at last, are people his father cannot harm. The house and the people who live there seem too important and stable and dignified to be touched by any mere flames. Abner, on the other hand, feels only "ravening and jealous rage." His foot comes down in a pile of horse manure and before long he is wiping it in a long, ugly streak on the expensive carpet in the DeSpain's front hall. With this action complete, he leaves.

Before long, the rug is delivered to the Snopeses for cleaning, and Abner makes the bovine sisters scrub the stains with homemade lye soap (which, of course, ruins the thing). He returns the rug to DeSpain, who shows up and claims twenty bushels of corn (about $10) out of Abner's forthcoming crop in payment for the ruined $100 rug. The matter goes to court and the judge finds in favor of DeSpain, but only fines Snopes $5 of corn.

That night, Abner, "dressed carefully for some shabby and ceremonial violence," prepares his equipment for a barn burning. Sarty resists these preparations, and there is talk of tying him up. Ultimately, though, his mother promises to hold him and Abner leaves with the older brother. No sooner are they gone than Sarty is struggling wildly to get out of his mother's grip . . . and he succeeds. There is no one to stop him as he dashes from the house and tears up the road to the DeSpain's house. Bursting inside he screams a quick warning and then he is gone again, running back up the road. DeSpain flashes by on his horse and soon two shots are heard.

Sarty finally collapses, exhausted, on the crest of a hill. He struggles there to come to terms with what has just taken place, then he gets up and moves forward with no more immediate destination than the dark woods ahead of him. He doesn't look back.

Like the Compsons, the Snopes have been in a vicious, ever-looping cycle. Sarty has had no control over his life. He was a trapped character. Sarty, however, is not handicapped with any of the Compson's flaws. The closest a Compson comes to escaping the cycle is suicide. Sarty, moved by his compassion, honesty, and sense of justice, is able, with a tremendous effort, to break free. I didn't expect Faulkner to allow that . . . but I'm certainly glad he did.

Posted by Jared at 11:25 PM | TrackBack

April 23, 2005

Robert Frost: Weary Wanderings Down Wooded, Wintry Ways

The interesting thing about a lot of Frost's poetry (to me) is how resistant it is to any interpretation or analysis with depth. The lines of poetry wash gently over you as you read them and your mind is filled with vivid, peaceful scenes of woods and footpaths, green summer days and white winter nights, and . . . who would wish to intrude upon this lyrical setting simply to impose some brutish meaning over its simple beauty?

Or, to think of it another way, what Frost says comes through in his writing in a reasonably clear and (what is infinitely more important) breathtakingly colorful style . . . why would a starry-eyed young reader of poetry want to convert fluid verse into jarring prose? Frost has already written things out very nicely by himself, and a part of me would just prefer to leave it alone.

But enough rambling about that. We all know that I'm not going to just leave it alone. In fact, I'll be hacking at, not one, but three Frost poems momentarily. If you want to read them, they appear beneath the fold . . . so curl up with the keyboard in the warm glow from your monitor and enjoy the words of the Frosty One.

"Mending Wall" has the narrator "walking the line" with his neighbor, repairing the wintertime damage to the wall between their respective properties. Nature, it would seem, doesn't have a great deal of respect for such man-made contrivances, although from the description of the repairs they make ("some [boulders] so nearly balls/We have to use a spell to make them balance") it sounds as if portions of the wall wouldn't stand up to a stiff breeze.

To the narrator, this bit of exercise is little more than a game to wile away a sunny spring day. So, when they come to a portion of wall which divides two stands of different types of trees (on the one side, pines, on the other, apples), he sees no need to rebuild. The neighbor, however, is stubbornly (but mindlessly) determined that a wall should exist. This prompts the narrator to begin to ask the questions which, perhaps, the reader was already asking after the poem's opening statement: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." What does love a wall, and why?

Suddenly, the neighbor takes on a very base aspect. He seems dark and primitive and barbaric, grunting as he shifts rocks around and places them on top of each other, helpless in the grip of a protective instinct which tells him, against all reason, that he requires a barrier between himself and his fellow man.

"The Road Not Taken" is so widely known and widely read that it has practically become cliché. And yet, the reason for this is precisely because it communicates something that everyone experiences at some point (probably several points) in their lives through the artfully drawn metaphor of a traveler who reaches the inevitable fork in the road he has been following and must choose between two ways which seem virtually identical . . . but probably aren't. The choice is all the harder because once it has been made the traveler will never be able to tell whether the road not taken actually was the better choice. It is the uncertainty, I think, which will keep him hearkening back to that choice "ages and ages hence."

The big question this poem raises in my mind is one of how important the decision really is. I mean, I know the last line declares that it "has made all the difference" but look at the description of the two roads. They were essentially identical, how could choosing one road over the other have made any appreciable difference that he would be capable of judging without having traveled the other road? Perhaps the poem subtly suggests that it was the act of choosing which has so affected the traveler, rather than any variation between the two paths.

Or perhaps Frost is echoing a sentiment from Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The two roads were equal, but the traveler still thinks back on his decision "with a sigh." He is moving forward down the road he chose, but his eyes are continually cast backwards with longing and regret towards the one he did not choose. His obsession with that other road is preventing him from being fulfilled by the path he has taken.

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" concerns yet another traveler, on his way from somewhere to somewhere (a condition which the reader feels he must often find himself in). It is evening and everything is growing dark. Snow is falling, and for some reason he suddenly finds his attention absorbed by the drifts of white gathering in a patch of woods.

The character of this traveler is somewhat suggested by two things. First, his horse is not used to stopping like this . . . it is rare indeed for this traveler to stop for no apparent reason, simply to admire a view. Second, his introspective moment, partially hypnotized by a view of "lovely, dark and deep" woods, is cut short by the pressing call of "promises to keep" and "miles to go."

It is a soothing snapshot of brief tranquility in the midst of a life which seems full of destinations and obligations. This traveler is quite used to being often on his way from one place to the next. People are counting on him, and he has much left to do before he can pause to sleep . . . and yet, this scene stops him dead, if only for a few moments. Here is something different. Here is something he is not often used to seeing. Here is peace, complete and absolute and, for him, sadly transient.

Frost's poetry operates on two levels for me. On the surface, it is beautiful and pleasant and inspiring and calming. These are good poems. Just beneath this surface, however, Frost's poems produce a nostalgic longing in the reader and raise questions we do not often ask anymore. These three poems lead me to wonder:

-Why do we wall ourselves off from each other so much and so often when this is obviously against the natural order of things?

-Why do we live so much in the past when it obviously stunts our participation in the present?

-Why do we often allow details to drown out the parts of life which are most worth living?

Oh, go on and think about it for a second. A little introspection won't kill you. Personally, I’m not sure that I know the answers to any of these questions, but I do think that one way to deal with the problems they highlight is simple and effective: Read a Robert Frost poem or two, and then go share them with someone else.

And while you're doing that, I'm going to go do something else . . . I've still got "miles to go before I sleep," myself. I'll beat all those blasted details yet!

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!'
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Posted by Jared at 09:21 PM | TrackBack

April 01, 2005

The Light Brigade Gets Lucky


Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Myself- Captain Bluntschli
Ardith- Raina Petkoff
Wilson- Sergius Saranoff
Anna- Catherine Petkoff
Gallagher- Petkoff
Scholl- Nicola, Russian Officer
Rachel- Louka

George Bernard Shaw is just awesome. His plays are hilarious, and they always manage to stomp all over some cherished British convention of the period during which they were written. Arms and the Man is Shaw's dig at the popular Romantic notions of warfare as honorable and glorious (this includes some hilarious pot shots at "The Charge of the Light Brigade").

During a war between the Serbs and the Bulgarians, Captain Bluntschli (a Swedish mercenary), finds himself on the run after his artillery unit is accidentally routed by a suicidal Bulgarian cavalry charge (the Serbs just happened to have been sent the wrong size ammunition at precisely the wrong moment). He escapes up into the bedroom of the young Bulgarian woman, Raina Petkoff, whose fiancé, Sergius Saranoff, led this cavalry charge, and she and her mother take him in.

Soon he returns safely home in an old coat belonging to the girl's father. After the conflict ends some few weeks later, he comes back to return the coat and hilarity ensues as Raina and her mother attempt to hide their role in his escape from her father and Sergius (who met Bluntschli during the peace negotiations and have developed an enormous respect for him).

To complicate matters, Raina and Sergius each consider the other's love for them to be the one completely pure and noble thing in their lives . . . and they each find themselves falling for other people: Raina for Bluntschli and Sergius for Louka (the fiercly-independent maid). Fortunately for this ingenue and her Byronic betrothed, Bluntschli's straightforward, unvarnished view of life, and the six hotels he has just inherited from his father, are there to save them from themselves and their hopelessly idealized worldviews.

That's kinda Shaw's thing: Tension arises not only from romantic triangles and the question of who will wind up with whom, but from the intolerable possibility that the play might end while a character still has a fractured worldview. And so, by the end, everyone (at least, everyone important) has been brought peacefully and blissfully into the fold . . . their wrongheaded ideas about life, love, war, virtue, etc. finally cast aside.

Happily ever after, indeed.

Posted by Jared at 02:28 AM | TrackBack

March 24, 2005

The Longest Intermission Ever


The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart

Scholl- Sheridan Whiteside
Rachel- Maggie Cutler, Sarah, Mrs. Dexter
Gallagher- Bert Jefferson, Richard Stanley, Mr. Stanley, Banjo
Myself- Dr. Bradley, John, Professor Metz, Beverly Carlton
Anna- Miss Preen, Mrs. Stanley, Harriet Stanley, Lorraine Sheldon
Ardith- June Stanley, Mrs. McCutcheon, Harriet Stanley, Lorraine Sheldon
Randy- Mr. Stanley, Sandy, Westcott
Wilson- Bert Jefferson

Well, in spite of the extreme hilarity and copious sly references to twenties, thirties, and forties pop culture contained in this play, we kinda stopped dead on the reading of it three Thursdays ago and only finished it tonight. Nevertheless, despite the long pause in the middle, I look forward more than ever to seeing this performed at the Longview Community Theater in a few weeks.

In this excellent play, Sheridan Whiteside, an internationally-known radio personality who runs in the highest of artistic circles slips on a patch of ice and breaks his leg while leaving the small-town home of the Stanleys where he has just eaten supper. As a result he is confined in their living room for several weeks as the holiday season kicks into full swing. "Sherry" is crusty, abrasive, and domineering, and he soon takes over the household entirely, winning over the servants (John and Sarah), constantly screaming at doctor (Bradley), nurse (Preen), and personal secretary (Maggie), encouraging the daughter and son of the house (June and Richard) to run away from home in pursuit of their own dreams and future plans, and receiving a steady stream of high-society visitors and odd, assorted gifts (from penguins to mummy cases) from celebrities around the globe.

After the doctor reveals the startling news that Sherry isn't actually injured after all he must maintain the ruse a bit longer as Maggie has fallen in love with a local reporter (Bert Jefferson) in the interim. Sherry is determined to put a stop to it for fear he will lose her. With this goal in mind, he calls in seductive stage actress Lorraine Sheldon with promises of a leading role in the play Bert has written . . . but Maggie isn't giving up so easily.

Sliding into despair after a number of attempts to subvert Lorraine's purpose have failed, Maggie resigns her secretarial position and prepares to leave. Sherry is finally forced to step in himself and rid the town of Lorraine with the aid of his ambiguously gay friend from Hollywood (Banjo, one of Gallagher's finer character performances) in the hilarious climax.

Really my only concern about the LCT production is that their portrayal of Banjo won't be nearly as side-splittingly flamboyant as our own Gallagher's was. We shall see . . . Kudos also to Scholl and Rachel in particular for good work that "made" more than one scene.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

February 24, 2005

Income Tax Dodge #1134: Kill Milkman and Transfer Your Identity to Corpse


You Can't Take It With You by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart

Ardith- Penny, Alice, Gay Wellington
Gallagher- Rheba, Ed, Grand Duchess Olga, G-Man 2
Wilson- Paul, Henderson, Tony Kirby
Scholl- Mr. DePinna, Boris Kolenkhov, G-Man
Rachel- Essie, Mrs. Kirby
Uncle Doug- Donald, Mr. Kirby, G-Man 3
Myself- Grandpa Vanderhof

This play was a lot of fun to read, in spite of the minor obstacles to a smooth reading (three fewer people than I had hoped, and two different versions of the script). Nevertheless, we've had more difficult material to work with in the past, and the challenge just makes the result more entertaining for the most part. Especially when we've got Ardith and Scholl talking to themselves a good bit.

Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, I can't think of a great deal to say about this play outside of that. It's a zany family comedy that flirts with some fairly risque elements considering the year (1936). The connection, in particular, between sex and Wall Street was highly entertaining. But, as I say, my mind is almost completely blank regarding what more I could possibly say.

Oh, and sorry for giving away the ending in the title.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

February 22, 2005

Kate Chopin's Long Walk Off a Short Pier

Welcome to a new episode of Late-Night Lit journals, or "Even More Fictional Women Wind Up Dead."

Seriously, as I wrote all these journals over the course of an evening, I couldn't help noticing a strange and disturbing trend. Daisy Miller, taking a hint from that immortal piece of chameleonic advice ("When in Rome . . ."), died of the aptly named Roman fever. Mother Shipton quit eating (a surefire recipe for starvation). Piney Woods and The Duchess (NOT LESBIANS) shuffled off the mortal coil in each others' arms. And . . . Well, heck. I'll be danged if Edna Pontellier didn't up and decide to cork off, too. At least she kept me guessing . . . waited until the last paragraph.

I waded through a rather lengthy and drawn-out story, fraught with spiritual growth and moral development (in the Romantic, not the Christian sense), only to have our jolly heroine strip naked and attempt to swim across the Gulf of Mexico. And yes, that does make the title of this post something of a pun. Anyway . . . Let's roll with a more conventional summary. Prepare to feel my pain.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Pontelliers (Edna, her husband Leonce, and their two boys) spend every summer in a quaint little spot on the Louisiana coast with other people like themselves (wealthy natives of New Orleans). There are the Ratignolles, the Lebruns (who own the collection of cottages), Mademoiselle Reisz, and . . . so forth. For Edna Pontellier, though, this summer is different. She is cultivating a pleasant friendship with young Robert Lebrun, who has latched himself onto a different married woman every summer since he was but a lad.

Edna's husband is affectionate but distracted. He loves her in his own way, but he takes her for granted. His weeks are spent conducting his business in New Orleans, visiting his family only on the weekends. Large portions of his visits are spent in the local pool hall. Edna herself, leaving her children in the care of their nurse, spends her days bathing in the sea with Robert or working at her hobby (sketching and painting and such). Yes, you should already know where this is going.

And, almost before they have time to notice what is going on, she and Robert suddenly find themselves dangerously close to the awkward and completely unspoken position of being more than just friends. Not long after this comes an evening of general merriment among the guests. During a lull in the entertainment, Robert entreats Mademoiselle Reisz to play for Mrs. Pontellier. Edna is enraptured by the music, and the performance is quickly followed by a sojourn to the beach by all parties for a moonlight swim.

Edna has been attempting to learn how to swim all summer, but thus far has been too afraid to really swim alone. On this night, however, something about the music and the moon and the spirit within her prompts her to strike out with a firm stroke. Caught up in the exhiliration of swimming she goes out farther than she means to and is frightened, but has no trouble returning to shore. Her husband pooh-poohs her small fright, and Robert ends up escorting her back to the cottages. They converse, and then he leaves her and she rests outside while waiting for her husband to return.

Something new has awoken inside of her, and when her husband returns she defies his request that she enter the house, asserting that she will stay outside all night. A small spat erupts, and he stays outside smoking cigars and drinking wine until she gets sleepy and goes to bed. But she is a different person. She is woman, hear her roar . . . etc.

And, now that we have reached the title character of this meandering tale, the rest should be easy. Just as Edna feels she has reached an understanding with Robert, he decides that now would be a really good time to go to Mexico (a plan he has contemplated for years). Feeling completely adrift and forlorn, Edna mucks about for the rest of the summer and then returns to New Orleans. Back home again she begins to shirk her duties as hostess, mother, and housekeeper. She never receives visitors, preferring instead to wander the city without telling anyone where she is going, or retiring to her attic studio to paint whatever strikes her fancy.

Her husband, worried, consults the family doctor, who instructs to let the matter be. He takes the advice, even in the face of some harsh words from his visiting father-in-law (an old Confederate colonel) when Edna decides not to attend her sister's wedding in Kentucky. Not long after this, Leonce leaves on an extended business trip to New York and the two sons are sent to visit their grandmother.

Edna, missing Robert, who enquires about her through Mademoiselle Reisz but never writes her himself, wanders languidly into the arms of the dandy Alcee Arobin. An affair ensues. Languidly. She feels she has cheated on . . . Robert. Edna decides to move into a small house around the block from hers, tired of living in Leonce's abode. She celebrates the move with a disastrous dinner party which reminds her of Robert.

Robert returns and she meets him purely by chance while waiting for Mademoiselle Reisz to return to her rooms. Things are awkward between them at first, but after several days they meet by chance again and the truth comes out. Robert is in love with her, but will not be dishonorable while she is married. That was the reason for his trip to Mexico, and again the reason for his avoiding, even though a momentary lapse in his judgment brought him back to New Orleans.

She convinces him that they should be together, but just as they are about to be, Edna receives an urgent summons from Madame Ratignolle, who is about to give birth to a baby and requires emotional support. Robert promises to wait, and Edna goes. Madame Ratignolle entreats her repeatedly to "think of the children" and the family doctor, walking her home, asks her to come talk to him. She re-enters her house to find Robert gone, leaving behind a note saying he has decided to do the honorable thing in not committing adultery. She responds by returning unannounced to the cottages where she spent the summer before and proceeding in the Whitman-ian fashion outlined above. The end.

I'm sorry if that's a bit sketchy, but for a book where nothing really actually happened, there was a lot of random character development going on. Ain't that always the way? Hopefully I still have a bit left in me for the analysis.

This book is full of symbolism, and that is what interested me the most. Edna's awakening as a woman, fully in charge of herself, comes as she learns to swim alone for the first time. Her death in the ocean is heralded by the plummet into the water of a bird with a broken wing. Arobin, as they begin to become intimate, bares a saber wound on his wrist for her to examine and she becomes sick. Later, Robert accuses her of being cruel, saying it is as though she wishes him to show her a wound just so she can have the fun of looking at it.

What, precisely, does all this mean? Well, it would seem to indicate that women ought to cast of the shackles the chain them to husbands, children, and obligations in general, and live in whatever manner pleases them best. There are simply too many conscious, biting asides regarding the plight of women for this not to be true. However, the tragic ending of the affair does not seem to reinforce the message very strongly, somehow.

Maybe I'm just tired, but I just don't have a lot of patience with the situation in general. This should not be nearly so difficult. Robert shouldn't be making passes at married women as a matter of course. Edna and Leonce shouldn't be allowing him to indulge his fancy. Edna should care about her children and home and husband . . . Not that she must neglect everything else. It is a difficult position that I am analyzing from, as I will by default have very little credibility if I seem to be arguing that a woman's place is in the home.

I don't particularly believe that. I mostly leave that question up to the woman, since I'm not one. However, it seems to me that once the woman has answered the question for herself, she oughtn't to be swapping canoes midstream (as it were) and leaving everyone in the lurch. Her husband's behavior in the story certainly does not deserve anyone's approval, but then, we are not meant to sympathize with him. We are meant to sympathize with Edna Pontellier, and I simply can't do that at every point in the story. I feel sorry that she has begun the novel in a bad position, and proceeds to get herself into several more throughout, but after all, she makes all of her own choices.

And maybe that's the point right there. Right or wrong, choose for yourself. I find that, at least, a good deal easier to put up with, in spite of the awful potential the philosophy possesses. Free will cannot be denied, regardless of the consequences.

Posted by Jared at 04:30 AM | TrackBack

Bret Harte and the Outpoke of Flaster's Cat

Yes, I am mocking my fellow "lit students" again. No, I'm not sorry about it, unless by "it" you mean the fact that they are in the class.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

Fantastic short story . . . reminded me quite a bit of O. Henry, but with a gloomier ending than he normally supplied. My four-word summary runs something like this: "Snow falls, everybody dies." Somehow I don't think I can get away with just that, so here we go.

John Oakhurst, professional gambler and temporary resident of a small Western settlement called Poker Flat, awakes the morning after a reprehensible run of lawlessness to find his limited influence with the townsfolk rapidly on the wane. Escaping summary execution by an uncomfortably narrow margin, Oakhurst is exiled from the town with a handful of other undesirables: a scarlet woman known as "The Duchess," the local witc-- errr, herbalist, "Mother Shipton," and "Uncle Billy," shameful drunkard, ornery cuss, and all-around no-goodnik.

The four strike out for Sandy Bar, camping that night near a deserted cabin in the mountains several miles away from town. Here they are joined by "The Innocent" (a man named Tom Simson, once fleeced by Oakhurst before having his money returned and leaving the saloon a wiser man and loyal friend of the gambler). The Innocent has his 15-year old fiancée, the hilariously-named Piney Woods, in tow, and the two decide it would be a good idea to set up shop among the outcasts (not knowing, of course, that this is what they have become).

The next morning, Oakhurst experiences his second rude awakening in a row. The treacherous Uncle Billy has absconded with the mules, and the rest of the party is fairly well snowed in. Oakhurst avoids communicating the true gravity of the situation to Piney and The Innocent, who offer to share their provisions and generally contribute to the group morale as they all try to wait out the weather.

As the food and firewood are carefully rationed over the course of several days, the situation becomes steadily more desperate. Mother Shipton, who has been hoarding her rations and starving herself, leaves them in the care of Oakhurst to give to Piney, and then proceeds to die of . . . well, starvation (duh).

Oakhurst makes a pair of snowshoes out of a pack saddle and sends The Innocent to Poker Flat to get help . . . He has two days if he is to have any hope of returning to find the survivors still alive. Oakhurst leaves the camp to see The Innocent off a little ways, and doesn't return. Piney and The Duchess die in each others' arms and are buried beneath a blanket of snow. When the rescuers make their slightly belated entrance, Oakhurst's grave is discovered nearby, marked with the deuce of clubs and an epitaph announcing the cause of death as "a streak of bad luck." Lying beneath the snow with one of his own bullets in his heart, he is declared both the strongest and weakest of his fellow outcasts.

This is a great story that is really brought to life by its characters. Like almost everything we've read this semester, the story takes our moral expectations and turns them on their ear. The townsfolk who force the outcasts to leave are no doubt guilty of indulging in the same vices as the exiles. It is certainly to be expected that a new gang of the same types of people will be welcomed back within a very short time of the departure of the first group. The ritual cleansing of the town is meaningless but for the temporary salving of guilty consciences.

Meanwhile, the exiles display all sorts of admirable qualities (all save Uncle Billy, the only really bad apple in the barrel). Oakhurst, though a gambler, is a strong, courageous leader who operates under his own strict code of ethics which includes a great sense of personal honor, nobility, compassion, and respect for his fellow man. The Duchess and Mother Shipton rise to the challenge of protecting the innocence of the young Piney, ironically taking on the role of mothers to her.

Mother Shipton, in particular, makes the ultimate sacrifice to try and keep Piney alive. The Duchess and Piney comfort each other during their last moments, and The Duchess' redemption is apparent from the innocent expression on her dead face. Oakhurst's death, too, represents self-sacrifice . . . at least partially. Having fashioned a pair of snow shoes, he could easily have used them himself, with the handy excuse of going to get help besides. Somehow, though, I think he knows that rescue will be too late, and having sent off the young man he saved once before, he is faced with the looming prospect of imminent death (not just his own, but that of the women as well).

Having made the final push to ensure the salvation of at least one of the group, Oakhurst is unable to face the horrors of death from starvation or exposure. Nor does he wish to witness the deaths of the two women. He has done all that he can do, and he reserves for himself the gambler's right to fold when his hand is up.

Harte, as the author of the story, knows best, I'm sure, but the more I examine the situation, the less I see Oakhurst's final action as weakness. It seems like a perfectly rational action made by a level-headed individual who knew that his time had come, one way or another. Because of this, I have the most annoying sense that I'm missing something important. I even toyed briefly with the idea that Oakhurst had shot The Innocent and then made it look like his body lay there before donning the snow shoes and escaping . . . Except that really doesn't work. I guess Harte and I just have a difference of opinion. Go figure.

And to all you retarded homophobes out there (be you Californians, or merely stupid): There aren't any lesbians in this story. Drop it before Coppinger has to hurt you.

*shakes head* Little turkeys . . .

Posted by Jared at 02:08 AM | TrackBack

February 21, 2005

Henry James: My Excuse to Say "Ingénue" Repeatedly

Prior to this reading, my contact with Henry James consisted solely of a fair amount of enjoyment from reading his eerie The Turn of the Screw, and naught but the most shockingly dismal reviews of his novel The American from a good friend and fellow English major. I didn't know quite what to expect of Daisy Miller, his classic story of a young American ingénue running loose (that's a key word) in Europe.

But before I proceed any further, allow me to get a little something out of my system:

ingénue ingénue ingénue ingénue ingénue ingénue ingénue ingénue

There. I think I can proceed normally now. Note link to full text of novel, which you will not be following, but which I have thoughtfully provided anyway.

Daisy Miller by Henry James

The novel follows the experiences of the simple and innocent Daisy as she moves with her equally simple family (mother, young brother, and their guide Eugenio) through the cultivated circles of Americans who reside in Europe. Her story is seen through the eyes of an American resident of Geneva, Winterbourne, who has a bit of a romantic stake in the story (at least at first).

To make a long story as short as possible, Winterbourne first encounters Daisy and her family in Switzerland where he is visiting his aunt. Almost immediately, his own impression of her comes into conflict with the perceptions of everyone around him. What he views as a disarming naiveté, the upper crust see as flirtatious vulgarity. He is warned away from Daisy numerous times during the novel, particularly by his aunt.

Daisy is a very immature, headstrong girl, and her mother does very little to rein her in. Left with the power to make her own decisions, she impetuously winds up alone with Winterbourne on a sight-seeing expedition. They grow closer to each other, and Daisy is upset to hear that Winterbourne's visit is drawing to an end. She makes him agree to visit her in Rome in the winter, to which he willingly acquiesces, considering that he will be visiting his aunt at any rate.

Upon arriving in Rome, Winterbourne finds that Daisy is developing quite a reputation among the other Americans for her associations with various undesirables, most notably the faux gentleman Giovanelli, with whom she is very familiar. Her behavior grows steadily more wild and uninhibited, and consequences to health or reputation don't seem to matter at all. The Americans in Rome grow less and less tolerant of her behavior even as Winterbourne is mystified by it.

Seeing how intimate she has grown with Giovanelli, he distances himself somewhat from the situation, but does what he can to help (which is very little). The story draws to a close when Daisy and Giovanelli risk catching Roman fever despite Winterbourne's warning. Upon hearing his apathetic response to the possibility that she might be engaged, she declares herself equally apathetic at the prospect of catching her death.

And then she does.

At the funeral, Winterbourne learns from Giovanelli that he has misjudged Daisy's character, and that she truly was the helpless innocent he originally believed her to be. He informs his aunt of this fact, declares that he has been away from America for too long, and returns to live in Geneva.

This book really reminded me of A Room With a View by E. M. Forster, which I read over Christmas break. The only really important difference is that Forster's ingénue is male, and winds up married at the end of the story. I think I prefer that book to this, for various reasons . . . but that is neither here nor there.

Leaving out any snide remarks about Daisy's possession of the classic female tragic flaw, I have to wonder about calling it that. Daisy's innocence is most certainly tragic, but does Henry James consider it a flaw? Considering carefully the behavior of the other characters in the story, I find this highly doubtful. Throughout the story, the desirability of Daisy's innocent nature is highlighted, and when she is led astray it is not her fault, but the fault of those around her.

Nearly everyone she encounters knows a good deal more about how the world works (or, at least, how their own little world works) than she does. Assuming that she knows as much as they, they also assume that she is using a false innocence to disguise her questionable pursuits. This is never portrayed in a positive light. As Winterbourne attempts to balance on the knife's edge without clearly taking a side, his relationship with Daisy quite naturally deteriorates whenever he begins to trust his original instinct less.

It is the continued abuse, exploitation, ridicule, and mistrust of this ideal which lead to its eventual destruction. It deserved care and protection, and it was shunned . . . but it is almost as if the only concerned party who has a chance of carrying anything away from the whole affair is the reader. Winterbourne and Giovanelli are the only two who express any remorse over what has transpired.

Giovanelli's revelation is a plot device, and his humble admissions are soon replaced by the semi-polished veneer he maintains. Winterbourne, after a soul-cleansing confession of his own, travels full circle and winds up right back where he started. Is he any wiser?

It is left to the reader, then, to ensure that poor Daisy has not died in vain. It is we who must learn and impart the lesson of the story. Unpolished innocence is superior to cultivated worldliness.

Personally, I remain unconvinced. Innocence is a precious thing, particularly among the very young. However, as with any delicate blossom, the time comes when it must wilt and fade away . . . I say fade because it is better that it disappear gradually, rather than be snapped unceremoniously from its stalk by rough hands. Nevertheless, preserve innocence beyond its time and you court disaster, unless you plan on keeping your bloomin' flowers safe in their greenhouse pots forever.

If innocence is sheltered beyond the time when it should expire by natural means, someone is almost certainly in for a rude awakening sooner or later. It is to be hoped that, unlike Daisy, their innocence is all they lose (speaking, as we were, of flowers).

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

Is that a lit book in your pocket, or did you feel Emily today?

The title above is a quote from Martinez, in case you were wondering . . . and the quote came from a lunchtime discussion of the preceding American Lit class wherein Dr. Coppinger had actually asked us the latter half of the above question.

Anyway, there's a lot I could say about Emily Dickinson. She has a pretty hardcore fanbase amongst the more starry-eyed denizens of my field of study. And I know a fair number of people who are still bitter about being made to read some of her poetry in high school. Personally, poetry isn't my special area, but I do love a good poem. And Emily Dickinson wrote some pretty good poems. However, she also wrote quite a few incomprehensible poems . . . especially to a hapless high schooler stuck with a starry-eyed, gushing prof.

Anyway, I would say that Dickinson wrote more poems by herself than I've probably read by all poets combined at this stage in my career. And she didn't just write about one thing. There are a lot of worthwhile themes in her poetry that I could examine . . . and a number of poems which simply provide excellent reading with their vivid and vivacious descriptions of nature.

However, in this case I have selected the six poems from the assigned reading that appear to me to be about mourning for lost loved-ones and questioning God. These six poems, all quite short, can be found beneath the fold.

I must note, before proceeding, that as subjective as criticism of poetry often is, Dickinson's poetry seems to me to be especially wide open to interpretation. As such, I'm just kinda speculating here. It would be really nice to know exactly what is going on in her life as she writes each of these poems, but there it is . . .

To summarize briefly, the first poem as a straightforward statement boils down to: The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away . . . sometimes more than once, and sometimes taketh happens without giveth.

The second poem is a description of the numb feeling that accompanies a great loss, second stage in the cycle of mourning she has outlined in the last line of the piece. The comparison is between mourning a loved one and passing through a freezing winter. This is what you, too, will experience . . . if you survive.

The third poem questions God's motives in giving life to the speaker. Ignorance, apparently, is bliss. The speaker wants to know why she was given the gifts of reason and life when they are accompanied by so much misery. I have asked these same questions, and have found answers that satisfy me. Far more difficult, however, is watching others that you are close to ask the same questions, and knowing that your answers cannot possibly hold any comfort for them. This I have done as well.

The fourth poem once again addresses the mourning process. This time it speaks of the pain and necessity of moving on, storing away emotions until the time when they will be required again. There is certainly a faint glimmer of hope here that "we will all meet by and by," but when read together with some of the other poems, how sincere is this hope?

The fifth poem may seem like a random choice at first, but it really struck me when I read it, so I included it. It is about the callous and perfunctory side of nature which terminates life and beauty indiscriminately while God looks down and pronounces that it is good. This poem, of course, fails to address the fact that we live in a fallen world. However, I'm not really up for spouting the party line on this one right now. Let's leave easy answers behind for the moment. More on that further down.

The sixth poem, dealing with loss in a very personal manner, links back to the first poem with its reference to the number two in association with periods of sorrow and mourning. The last two lines never fail to move me, because I have experienced at least my fair share of partings, and I hate them. And there is a very profound truth in making the connection between parting and the torments of hell.

Now, let's dive right in. First, the picture I present here is rather one-sided. I know this. There is a good deal of joy and sunshine in some of Dickinson's other poetry. But the joy is never merely a thin, artificial thing used to hide pain and suffering . . . They exist side by side, and I think there is true depth to be found in the poetry written by a sad or angry or confused Emily.

At the very least, Dickinson asks some hard questions and makes some unpleasant observations without providing trite answers (because she has none) and without brushing negative emotions lightly aside (because life isn't that easy). It is because life is not always easy that the answers to Emily's questions are hard for me to supply. When life is easy, the answers to questions like "Why do we suffer?" seem all too apparent. But have you ever told someone who was suffering that "them's the breaks" because we live in a fallen world? Did it help?

Just because something is true doesn't mean that being aware of it is particularly beneficial. I don't really know whether Dickinson realizes that these things are true, but neither do I think that knowing why life is sometimes painful would have made her life any happier.

I sense a great deal of isolation from Emily Dickinson's poetry. There is a sense of emotions being buried rather than worked through . . . questions asked of no one which go unanswered . . . being knocked down by life with no guarantees that life will pick her back up or refrain from knocking her down again.

Even if one possesses all the answers to life's mysteries, the way to comfort someone who is in pain is to suffer with them. I can't tell that Emily Dickinson ever had someone who suffered with her. That, if true, is far more tragic than any losses she experienced. To quote Spider Robinson (shut up, I can't believe it either):

"Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased - thus do we refute entropy."


I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod;
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels, twice descending,
Reimbursed my store.
Burglar, banker, father,
I am poor once more!


After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.


Of Course—I prayed—
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird—had stamped her foot—
And cried "Give Me"—
My Reason—Life—
I had not had—but for Yourself—
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb—
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb—
Than this smart Misery.


The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, --

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.


Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.


My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Posted by Jared at 07:48 PM | TrackBack

February 20, 2005

Walt Whitman, Sexy Beast of Nature . . . Yahonk!

Well, I haven't posted a lit journal in a really long time (since last May) . . . and it's been even longer since I've written one. But, as my readers should know, I have a batch of five coming due on Tuesday, so . . . here we go again.

Song of Myself by Walt Whitman

First of all . . . Walt Whitman. Wow. What a special guy. He reminds me very much of Oscar Wilde in that he built an enormous image for himself in his own time and place, simply because he had a style and a message all his own. After that the similarities disintegrate fairly quickly, but that is what his unashamed passion for and revelry in nature, simplicity, and the common man remind of . . . (Wilde, of course, reveled in decadence).

His poem, "Song of Myself," originally untitled, is in many ways a religious document. However, despite that title, he is not the god of his own religion . . . merely the high priest or chief prophet. I do not sense any conceit or false pride in this poem, merely a genuine faith in his dogma and an earnest longing that others will read and believe. Rather I should say that all of his false pride is attached to the entirety of the human race, not just to himself. No less wrong, certainly, but somehow easier to swallow.

The poem is so incredibly alive. It flows freely without constraint of rhyme scheme or meter . . . This in itself serving as the definitive statement on how Whitman lives his own life and why it is the best way for everyone. Its 52 stanzas are about life, love, nature, knowledge, freedom . . . all of these presented as the ideals Whitman believed they should be. Life should be lived in perfect freedom: laughing, loving, and . . . cavorting in nature. The constraints of civilization, from laws to prejudices, need not apply. All knowledge should be acquired from living in nature and interacting with nature. Everything you need to know to live and be happy can be learned from watching a sunrise or playing in ocean surf.

Societal conventions and norms are unnecessary, constraining, and probably harmful . . . This goes for everything from formal etiquette to church attendance to proper attire . . . or, for that matter, any attire. It is perhaps on this point that I take the most serious issue with his philosophy because . . . Dude, Walt . . . Don't nobody want to see that. Nuh-uh. Just slide it right back on and step on back. Leaving your hat on in the house is one thing, but if that's all you're leaving on we have issues.

Certainly my favorite thing about Whitman is the wonderful humanitarian aspect of his character that surfaces in the poetry. He speaks of loving people, all people, equally . . . He doesn't discriminate based on gender or race or age. He speaks of giving aid to the suffering and dying. He actually thinks he can help everyone, and that the world will be a better place for following his credo. His supreme confidence in this is somewhat contagious . . . or would be if it weren't for, say, the 20th century.

It is impossible for me to think of Whitman in connection with his poetry without picturing a self-made "tall tale" hero of epic renown. Like Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, or Pecos Bill, thoughts of Walt Whitman bring to mind an immense figure who wanders the sparsely inhabited regions of young (teen-aged?) America. He is probably naked, but that immense white beard maintains a show of modesty for the sake of my too-vivid imagination. He covers an enormous area with his huge stride, and whenever he approaches civilization he leaves nothing but wilderness behind with every step. He is helper, teacher, and savior to everyone he meets . . . pioneer and native alike. He is, oxymoronically, something of a Bacchanalian Christ-figure.

I enjoy "Song of Myself." To anyone who thinks it a bit too full of chutzpah, I refer you to my earlier statements regarding same . . . And to anyone who finds his ideology just a bit too hard to swallow, I submit that, after all, it's several steps above the ever-popular, always-nauseating "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten."

Posted by Jared at 01:52 PM | TrackBack

February 03, 2005

"I know that if I were in his place and you were in hers, we wouldn't sleep either."


Mandragola by Niccolo Machiavelli

Wilson- Callimaco
Scholl- Siro
Myself- Ligurio
Randy- Messer Nicia
Michaela- Lucrezia
Gallagher- Sostrata, Young Widow
Andrew- Fra Timoteo

So, Machiavelli was a filthy old man and a playwright. Who knew? Well, just about everyone, as it turns out. So, here's the basic plot:

Callimaco, an Italian who has spent most of his life in France, returns to Italy to investigate the rumors of a shockingly beautiful (and, unfortunately, virtuous) married woman named Lucrezia. And he can't just stop with looking. So he hires Ligurio, a professional in such matters, to help him wheedle his way into Lucrezia's bed. The enterprise is aided by the fact that Messer Nicia, her husband, is apparently impotent (in addition to being an idiot) and . . . bawdy hilarity ensues.

Ligurio and Callimaco convince Nicia (who refuses to acknowledge his role in the couple's childless plight) that a potion made of mandragola, when once drunk by his wife, can't fail to make her fertile. There's just one catch . . . the first person to have relations with her after she drinks it will die in eight days. You can figure out the rest.

The quote in my title is spoken to the audience by Lucrezia's mercenary confessor, who is all too willing to justify the scheme to her biblically (using the example of Lot's daughters, no less) for the right number of ducats.

It was funny and a pretty good time . . . especially after a two-week drop-off in play readings . . . but I'm afraid we might have scandalized a few Longview Hall pedestrians.

Oh, well.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

January 01, 2005

January's Featured Books

1/7 - The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (o o o o o)

The Paris Opera House: enormous, magnificent, riddled with trapdoors and secret passages . . . and haunted by a dark spirit known only as "the opera ghost." This creature already wields total control over the managers through intimidation and (when necessary) terrorism and murder. But when a beautiful, talented, and hopelessly naive young singer joins the performers, his megalomania is replaced by obsession and an overwhelming desire to possess her.

French author Gaston Leroux wrote this psychological thriller over a century ago, but for the most part it still has the power to send chills down the spine. Okay, maybe it's a bit dull in spots, but the story continues to fascinate successive generations, inspiring several movie versions (from the silent era to one which will be released in a few short weeks) and even an opera of its own by the illustrious Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Part mystery, part tragic romance, and part Gothic horror, all of this book is worth your time. The themes of religion, illusion, and madness which it explores are powerful and absorbing. The characters are wonderful (in particular, the location of the action itself almost becomes a character in the story, so vividly is its architecture described), and the villain (as it should be) is by far the most complex and intriguing of them all. If you enjoy the works of Poe, Shelley, or Stoker, give Leroux a try. You won't be disappointed.

1/1 - The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot by Robert Arthur (o o o o o)

Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews are sent on yet another dangerous mission by movie director Alfred Hitchcock. Facing off against a sinister fat man, they attempt to track down seven parrots with literary names, each of which has learned a spoken phrase. These phrases are the only clues that lead to a priceless treasure which the boys' enemies will do anything to get their hands on.

This is one of a couple dozen books in the "Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators" series. I've probably read around fifteen of them, but I haven't read one in years. As far as I remember, they are excellent and highly entertaining mystery/adventure stories for 10-15 year olds (give or take). These are way better than the Hardy Boys . . . which is probably why I never cared much for that series. And the detectives in question are sponsored by the great Hitchcock himself! Who could ask for more?

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (o o o o o)

The Paris Opera House: enormous, magnificent, riddled with trapdoors and secret passages . . . and haunted by dark spirit known only as "the opera ghost." This creature already wields total control over the managers through intimidation and (when necessary) terrorism and murder. But when a beautiful, talented, and hopelessly naive young singer joins the performers, his megalomania is replaced by obsession and an overwhelming desire to possess her . . . [Read More]
Posted by Jared at 12:00 AM | TrackBack

December 17, 2004

"We've all got knives! It's 1183 and we're barbarians!"

No, I didn't forget. I was simply detained . . . unavoidably.


The Lion in Winter by James Goldman

Gallagher- Henry II
Anna- Eleanor of Aquitaine
Barbour- Richard
Wilson- Geoffrey
Paige- John
Myself- Phillip II
Ardith- Alais

This is such a great play, and I've seen both movie versions of it. I actually prefer the newer one, I have to say . . . but that's beside the point.

In an unusual turn of events, we had just enough people, but one too many girls. So Paige got to take on Prince John. It actually worked, in a strange and amusing sort of way. I enjoyed my brief onstage time as Phillip II, particularly the infamous bedroom scene. Poor Barbour never saw it coming . . .

And so we brought the fall '04 season to a successful conclusion with one of the more unconventional Christmas plays I know of . . . Jolly good times for everyone, and on to next semester!

Posted by Jared at 02:06 AM | TrackBack

December 14, 2004

"A lover, that kills himself most gallant for love."

-- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Sc. ii

Well, I just finished The Sorrows of Young Werther in-between two of today's finals, and . . .

Oh, brother!

Sappiest. Book. Ever.

I groaned louder and cringed more visibly as I got closer and closer to the end. Reading a bit aloud to Moore and Wilson improved things a bit, but then I was once again reading alone. It made me want to sick up.

I thought I was into the movement. I thought I was a Romantic. But this . . . this was thick and heavy and sticky and saccharine. It was melodramatic and self-centered. It was idealistic and impractical. It was overenthusiastic and far, far too passionate. If everyone in the world were a Werther, everyone in the world would be a dead Werther.

Does that mean that I don't get to be a Romantic? Can you be a conditional Romantic? How about a cynical Romantic? A Romantic Cynic?

Hmmm . . . I like this idea. We'll call it Cynimanticism. Any takers?

Frigging Goethe . . . Maybe I should stick with the British Romantics. Come to think of it, I'm not really a big Wordsworth/Keats fan, either. And Shelley is just "alright." That leaves Coleridge and *angelic choir voices* Lord Byron . . . but I'd still rather read Wilde and the others who came after him. And don't get me started on those bloody Americans . . .

Romanticism! Bah! Ick!


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December 02, 2004

An Evening of Baguette-Dunking à la France


The School for Wives by Molière

Wilson- Arnolphe
Gallagher- Horace
Paige- Agnés
Bryan- Chrysalde
Myself- Alain
Anna- Georgette
Scholl- Notary
Sharpton- Oronte
Barbour- Enrique

Well, I for one am not afraid to give France a rousing cheer when it deserves one. And it certainly deserves one for Molière. This is a hilarious little comedy about that universal subject that has the power to make everyone laugh . . . regardless of time or place: Matters of Love. The characters are hilarious and their relationships intertwine in wonderfully engaging and surprising ways. And the entire play is written (mostly) in rhyming couplets.

My favorite line (and not just because it was one of mine):

Likewise, a man's wife is his soup, you see?
And he'll be well pissed off if somebody
Starts dunking his baguette in it.

I'd really like to see this on film. The basic plot runs something like this:

Arnolphe's attitude towards marriage has become jaded and cynical after observing virtually every husband he knows turn into a cuckold. His solution? He buys a four-year old peasant girl named Agnès and has her raised in a convent. Thirteen years later, he pulls her out so he can marry her . . . but a funny thing happens on the way to the altar. While he is out of town, his old friend and fellow playboy Horace shows up and steals Agnès' heart. Arnolphe comes back to town, and Horace confides in him . . . not knowing who he is actually stealing the girl from (Arnolphe has changed his name to "de la Souche" since last they saw each other).

What follows, as Horace pulls "Don Juans" left and right, Arnolphe attempts to betray him, Agnès attempts to betray him, and Arnolphe's servants, the warring married couple Georgette and Alain, generally enjoy themselves (between blows), provides about as much fun and entertainment as one can reasonably expect out of your average Thursday night with the crew.

Très magnifique!

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December 01, 2004

December's Featured Books

12/22 - The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (o o o o o)

Professor William Waterman Sherman sets out from San Francisco in a hot air balloon in the summer of 1883, hoping to make the first flight across the Pacific. Three weeks later he is picked up in the Atlantic, surrounded by the wreckage of, not one, but twenty balloons. How did this come to be? Herein lies the tale of his fantastic visit to Krakatoa, a remote volcanic island whose European inhabitants have become fabulously wealthy from the Krakatoan diamond mines. These people have created a Utopian society centered around a "gourmet government" and a dazzling array of marvelous inventions, many of which involve hot air balloons.

During Sherman's brief stay on Krakatoa, in the few weeks before the small civilization is shattered forever by a cataclysmic eruption, he learns everything there is to know about the island and its people. And the reader is along for the highly enjoyable ride. This book is a cleverly written and hilariously conceived tongue-in-cheek look at what a little ingenuity and a whole lot of money can accomplish in an island paradise. It had me sold on the concept of "gourmet government" when I first read it at age 13, and I still think it's a brilliant idea. Check this book out . . . it's quick and fun.

12/16 - The Tower of Geburah by John White (o o o o o)

First in a five-book series (although third chronologically), this abnormally-thick children's fantasy novel attempted to put a new spin on an old idea: Christian allegory thinly disguised as engaging entertainment. As I recall, it generally succeeds, in spite of being rather derivative.

I first read this book sometime after completing The Chronicles of Narnia (pre-1st grade) and before I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (4th grade), although I don't remember precisely when. At the time I thought it was the greatest book ever (it would be replaced in 4th grade, see above).

The story begins with Wesley, Lisa, and Kurt discovering four magical television sets in their uncle's attic. These TVs suck them into the magical land of Anthropos, separating Lisa from the boys, and the adventure is on. They are sent on a quest to fulfill a prophecy and restore the imprisoned king of Anthropos to the throne by retrieving a number of magical items that have lain for centuries in the enchanted Tower of Geburah.

Yes, White shamelessly rips off Narnia in a big way. Duh. But does he do it well?

I would say that he does in this case, especially considering in particular the age group in question. I have read three of the six books in the series (The Iron Scepter and The Sword Bearer), the third being vastly inferior to the first two. Judging from the excerpts and synopses I've read of the others, the remaining books go into something of a quality tailspin . . . but this first one entertained me. It doesn't do anything radically new, but maybe you can find a younger sibling to read it to.

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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 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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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October 16, 2004

Use the Life Force, Tanner


Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw

Gallagher- John Tanner, Mrs. Whitefield, Miss Ramsden, Don Juan, Rowdy Social-Democrat
Paige- Ann Whitefield, Violet Robinson, Maid, Doña Ana, Anarchist
Myself- Roebuck Ramsden, The Statue, Malone Sr., Narrator, Sulky Social-Democrat
Wilson- Octavius Robinson, Mendoza, The Devil, Duval
Barbour- Hector Malone, Henry Straker
Scholl- Narrator, Henry Straker

This play is . . . Well, I suppose that depends on how you read it. Sans Act III, this is a witty, light-hearted comedy with some great twists and turns, on a level with something like The Importance of Being Earnest. With Act III, however, what we have is . . . something altogether different and a good deal more like Faust. So much so that it hardly seems as if it could possibly have been intended for performance on the stage in this form, functioning rather more as a vehicle for Shavian philosophy (Shavian, by the way, is an extremely cool word) than something meant to entertain the shallow, theater-going public.

The extended (as in "comprising roughly a third of the play") dream sequence in Act III is a magnificent tour de force. It consists chiefly of a debate/discussion that takes place in hell between Don Juan (yes, the Don Juan), his former lover Doña Ana, a statue of her father (visiting from heaven, killed by Don Juan in a duel), and Satan himself. The first half of the dream focuses on the natures of heaven, hell, life, death, the human race, civilization, and other such trivialities. The second half is devoted to Woman.

It is very long, but as the Statue observes: "Instead of merely killing time we have to kill eternity."

The result of all this (Don Juan does most of the talking) is a crystallized brand of cynicism that is as . . . "advanced" as any I have ever seen. Everything is turned completely on its ear (see themes mentioned above for a partial listing of "everything"), with the institution of marriage being scorned and ridiculed above all things. Ultimate cynicism is a black, black pit indeed.

I think, after reading this play, that I have noticed at least that distinct difference between "Christian" and "secular" cynicism. The Christian cynic believes, or at least I believe, that having faith in the existence of pure motives behind any action taken by any human being, and above all in the purity of your own motives, is a mistake.

The secular cynic applies the same principle, not only to his fellow humans, but to their Creator . . . Not that he believes in a Creator, of course. That is precisely the problem. For if there is no Creator, then human beings uphold all of the wrong institutions and social conventions for all of the wrong reasons, constrained by a nonexistent morality which the secular cynic does not even perceive. After all, if there's no reason for it to be there, why should it trouble you? In other words, as Oscar Wilde put it, the undiluted cynic is "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Perhaps a further discussion of the particular -isms which I subscribe to or admire, sometimes with reservations, sometimes without (romanticism, idealism, and aestheticism in addition to cynicism . . . just to name a few) is in order sometime in the future. For now, I sense that I have gotten far off track.

Read the play.

I will leave you with this quote from the end of the last act, which is so devastatingly and inevitably true (although, perhaps, not so tragic as it might at first seem) that it almost seems depressing to attempt denial:

"There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart's desire. The other is to get it."

And also with this quote, another piece of Shavian (I love that word!!!) wit. Though it is not from this play, keep it in mind if ever you read it lest you be swept away by an encroaching tide of semi-nihilistic philosophy and mock theology that sounds a good deal more convincing than it has any right to:

"Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman. Believing what he read made him mad."

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October 11, 2004

"Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

--Isaac Asimov

It occured to me tonight as I studied for my American Lit I midterm that there are many who still operate under a common misconception about our relations with Native American tribes. Namely, most people think that we continually pushed Indians westward, then eastward, then into the grave as we settled North America simply because we wanted their land. These same people are under the impression that we couldn't have it while they were on it because settlers who tried that had a nasty habit of winding up scalpless.

These people would be wrong. And if you'll hold on for just a second, I will dramatically change paragraphs and tell you why.

Okay, you still with me? Good. The reason we couldn't suffer the Indians to stay put clearly had nothing to do with pretty fields or bloody heads. It was a matter of national pride. It was a matter of self-respect. It was a matter of no longer having to feel the pricks of the razor-edged, rapier wit of an "inferior" people.

In short, we couldn't take the zingers anymore.

I had to read some Native American oratory and one speech in particular made me cringe, separated though I am by two hundred years and half a continent. I give you (and don't worry, it's pretty short):

The Speech of Red Jacket - Having lived as an MK for the lion's share of my life to date, I couldn't help but empathize with the targets of this speech (missionaries asking for permission to set up a mission among his people). In fact, I'm almost positive that one of my first thoughts was, "Ha! Sucks to be them!"

Brother! This council fire was kindled by you. It was at your request that we came together at this time. We have listened with attention to what you have said. You have requested us to speak our minds freely. This gives us great joy, for we now consider that we stand upright before you, and can speak what we think. All have heard your voice and all speak to you as one man. Our minds are agreed.

Brother! Our seats were once large, and yours were very small. You have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets. You have got our country, but you are not satisfied. You want to force your religion upon us.

Brother! Continue to listen. You say that you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind; and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost. How do you know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book. If it was intended for us as well as for you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us; and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?

Brother! You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit. If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agreed, as you can all read the book?

Brother! We do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers and has been handed down, father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we received, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.

Brother! The Great Spirit has made us all. But he has made a great difference between his white and red children. He has given us a different complexion and different customs. To you he has given the arts; to these he has not opened our eyes. We know these things to be true. Since he has made so great a difference between us in other things, why may not we conclude that he has given us a different religion, according to our understanding? The Great Spirit does right. He knows what is best for his children. We are satisfied.

Brother! We do not wish to destroy your religion, or to take it from you. We only want to enjoy our own.

Brother! We are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while, and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good and makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again what you have said.

Ouch. I mean . . . what do you . . . can you . . . even say to that? Nothing!

1)Hang head, 2)Tuck tail between legs, and 3)Go home. And take the other whites with you. You lose.

Or . . .

Well, you could just . . .

*whispers* Kill them . . .

Y'know, it just flat-out sucks that the intellectual victory is never really enough. Might doesn't make right . . . But then, it doesn't need to.

Put that in your peace pipe and smoke it.

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September 25, 2004

Murder! (sans Butlers, Candlesticks, and Conservatories)

The Shadow Council Players present:

Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot

Wilson- Archbishop Thomas Becket
Anna- Chorus of Women, Messenger
Myself- First Tempter, First Knight
Scholl- First Priest, Second Tempter, Second Knight
Barbour- Second Priest, Third Tempter, Third Knight
Andrew- Third Priest
Paige- Fourth Tempter, Fourth Knight

I had never read this one before, or much of anything else by Eliot for that matter. This play is really cool. And no, it isn't a mystery or anything like that.

In case you haven't read it, or couldn't tell from the cast, the play is about the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, in . . . the 1100s (I forget the exact year). He had been using his position to make geopolitical waves in England, France, and Rome and Henry II was rather upset about it. He made no secret of this fact and . . . Well, Becket wound up rather conveniently dead a few days after Christmas one year when some half-drunk knights managed to temporarily mislay their good sense in favor of loyalty.

Anyway, the style of the thing somehow made me think of Stanhope's pastoral play in Descent into Hell. Each character spoke in a very distinct style at particular times, and I would love to see this performed if it was properly directed. There is some amazing alliteration and poetry, and Becket's Christmas sermonette is really neat.

But my favorite part, of course, is where each of the four knights steps forward in turn and addresses the audience after the murder takes place, justifying their actions for posterity. That just rocked. I think I'll be spending a few more weeks in this period. I've enjoyed myself here (what with The Lion in Winter and History of the English Language, etc.).

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September 02, 2004

"Foolery, sir, does walk about the earth like the sun; it shines everywhere."

-- Twelfth Night, Act III, Sc. i

The Shadow Council Players are back in action! I am very happy. We started the new season with . . . well . . . Twelfth Night. Duh.

Cast listing:

Ardith- Viola, Maria
Wilson- Duke Orsino, Malvolio, 1st officer
Gallagher- Valentine, Feste, 2nd officer
Myself- Sebastian, Sea Captain, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Priest
Scholl- Curio, Sir Toby Belch
Scott- Antonio, Fabian
Anna- Lady Olivia

In one of the more distressingly well-cast roles of my limited experience, we had Ardith as the scheming cleaning wench, Maria. Ardith, you had too much fun destroying Malvolio's life with practical jokes. Just thought I'd mention that.

And speaking of Malvolio . . . ah, nevermind. We won't speak of the yellow-stockinged, cross-gartered, grinning fool. That was disturbing.

And now, the sequence of lines that . . . well, quote Scholl:

"Wow, I think Shakespeare just offended me."

Feste: Now Jove, in his next commodity of hair, send thee a beard.

Viola (disguised as a man): By my troth, I'll tell thee, I am almost sick for one, though I would not have it grow on my chin.

In the spirit of all great Shakespearean comedy there were plenty of baudy jokes, some transvestitism, mistaken identity, large quantities of sack, crazy elaborate practical jokes . . . *contented sigh*

Hooray for Play Time.

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July 13, 2004

A Wilde Shot in the Dark

As you can see on the right, we watched Wilde last night. It was fairly disturbing . . . and I thought movies had stopped disturbing me awhile ago. I do not recommend it to . . . well, anyone, really.

But I wouldn't have minded nearly so much if they hadn't been so disgustingly incorrect in their characterization of Oscar Wilde. It's positively criminal . . . like the screenwriter penned a movie on the great author without reading anything he'd written. They actually did quote him at length in the movie, of course, but it's as if they weren't paying attention to what they were reading while selecting the quotes and so forth . . . Gross negligence!

I suppose I was also more than a little distraught by all of the familiar faces involved (the movie had a ridiculous number of famous actor types) . . . and what those faces were . . . ah . . . doing. You can get a full cast list for yourself if you want it . . . I will simply mention in passing that this was Orlando Bloom's film debut.

Now, on to the main point:

Wilde's character was reduced to that of your average quiet, sardonic wit . . . no flavor or flamboyance, no spring in the step, no gaiety. Well, okay, there was gaiety all right, it just wasn't the kind I'm talking about. If you're going to be gay, dammit, be gay!

Whatever. I sense that I am straying slightly from my original aim. The chief problem with the movie was this: It turned Oscar Wilde into a victim, not only of his society, but of other young men. He is seduced, to begin with, by a man younger than himself, and he proceeds to be swept into affair after affair as if he doesn't want to be involved at all, really.

Always he is the too-quiet voice of reason and propriety and moderation and discretion, simply unable to assert himself in the face of his lover's belligerence. Did any of them actually read all of De Profundis? (I have previously quoted pertinent portions of this letter, written to Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas on this blog.)

Wilde wants to do the right thing, or, failing that, he wants to be discrete about doing the wrong thing, but he is unable to get past the beautiful vision he seems to have of so-called "ideal love" as he believes it existed in Ancient Greece between master and disciple.

Meh. Again, whatever. All this and more I could have accepted as potentially believable, (or at least acceptable), twists on the actual character, but then they went and blew the moral of the story, and a movie with great potential for a powerful illustration of redemption becomes a self-righteous (and rather late) sermon for gay rights.

Oh, yes . . . Wilde found a moral. Well, fine, the movie found a moral as well, it just wasn't a moral moral. Or, rather, it was amoral moral. Uhhh . . . yeah. I just hope you aren't reading this out loud to someone for whatever reason.

Anyway, the point is, as the excerpt from De Profundis and the following excerpt from the poem he composed while he was in prison clearly show, Wilde was getting it. He spent the last few years of his life getting it, becoming a Catholic on his deathbed. He certainly didn't spend that time with Bosie.

From "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (The "he" referred to repeatedly is a murderer, recently hanged)

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.

Posted by Jared at 11:31 PM | TrackBack

June 24, 2004

The Case for the Defense: Harry Potter as Wholesome, Valuable Christian Fantasy

The Harry Potter topic has by now, of course, grown quite out of control to the point where I couldn't hope to cover it all in a simple blogpost, or even in a book of any modest length.

I mean, it's not as if I would only have to contend with the five books in the series that have been published thus far, (and the combined total is already approaching 3,000 pages of material). There is also the matter of the 15+ (and still counting) books about Harry Potter. Some of these books discuss The Issue, some attempt literary criticism and analysis, and some delve into the background and origins of the unique blend of mythoi that Rowling has drawn from to create her own world. And besides all of that, there is the legion of articles that have been published in periodicals of every size, type, and description, plus the weighing in of opinion from famous figures of all types, both major and minor, and organizations who have this to mention or that to mention (all available on the Internet) . . . The sheer quantities of ink and human thought (or the lack of it) involved in this thing are as dizzying as a Sicilian's intellect.

Well . . . I don't even want to read all of that stuff, let alone comment on it. I just have one point to make in this post (Deep breath . . . prepare for a run-on sentence) . . . It is my intent to prove, (or at the very least assert and provide compelling evidence to support my thesis), that not only is Harry Potter neither evil or satanic in nature, but on the contrary, when properly read through the critical lens of Christian interpretation (if that's your thing and you've never heard of reading for the purposes of fun and entertainment . . . you poor dear) the Harry Potter series turns out to encompass a worldview which is inherently in concordance with the ideology of any well-educated, theologically grounded, and reasonably enlightened individual who happens to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and (if you so desire) can be used as a valuable tool from which to draw worthwhile and interesting life (and even spiritual) lessons for the instruction of developing minds, both young and old.

Anyway, I'll be chunking all the pro-Harry Potter ammo I've got at you, and I'll try to be as orderly as I can in my arguments . . . But you all know how I write, and worse, how I think.

Eat your heart out . . .

When it comes to the opinions of people that I know, (and I've asked a lot of people what they think during the three or so years that I've been more or less actively engaged in investigating this question), the statistical response to the question "Is Harry Potter evil or harmful?" is overwhelming.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who have actually read the Harry Potter series have responded "No." I haven't spoken with a single, solitary reader of the series who has responded in the affirmative. Perhaps someday I will . . . It won't change my opinion any, but I will no longer be able to rely on that impressive "one" followed by its two zeroes.

-100% of people that I have asked personally who responded "Yes" had not actually read the series or seen the movies. As I say . . . maybe someday, but for now the statistics are on my side. (I should note, for the record, that there are certainly a number of people with whom I have spoken who said either "Maybe" or "I don't know." None of them had read the books either, although some had seen one or more of the movies.)

That is what I know from talking to people. It is what I knew before I ever picked up the first book, and in the two years since that happened, nothing has changed yet. So:

I shall begin by contending that the Harry Potter series is written, from both a literary and a spiritual perspective, in the classic Inklings vein (books by said authors having long been accepted without question by all but the most foolish Christians worldwide).

If asked what my favorite class has been thus far here at LeTourneau, I would have to say it was last fall's Inklings class, (with only the slightest hesitation while I consider Watson classes and Social Backgrounds). It was truly an excellent class, and it helped me to see with particular clarity how even fantasy that is not strictly allegorical can appeal to the more spiritual aspects of our nature, and can present a very Christian worldview via symbolism and the various workings of plot, characters, and dialogue which promote any number of ideals, virtues and truths.

Last semester, as I was taking that class, I started to apply some of those principles to various things, and we even briefly discussed Harry Potter a couple of times in class (once as a result of a fascinating essay of sorts that I found, which I'll be linking to shortly). Meanwhile, I was frequenting a very small discussion board that had about 12 members at the time. Besides my roommate, Bryan, I was the oldest member, and when a Harry Potter discussion got started, I dove into it fairly quickly.

The following is an excerpt from a post I made near the beginning of the Inklings class:

I attended a class last night which was truly excellent and highly relevant to this discussion. Much of it was a discussion of myth and what it is and what it means to humanity. Essentially we have two very distinct spheres in existence in our universe: that of the Human and that of Heaven. Throughout history there have been instances were the heavenly intrudes in upon the human and it is in and from these points of intersection that myths are born. Myths are the human attempt to form a window through which they may view that which is divine, and in all of them we can catch glimpses and reflections of the hereafter. The Bible of course, is a True Myth, the one composed from the other side of the spectrum rather than by humans and it gives us a true, complete picture.

This, then, is what gives so many of us our love of fantasy, etc. It is a subject that C. S. Lewis was always talking about: That of the longing we all feel for something more beyond the material world that we see, and fantasy, (because of what it is, what it means, and where it comes from), partially satisfies that longing. Harry Potter is one example of a modern-day myth, and as such it contains any number of connections to the supernatural which are fascinating to observe. A large part of the structure of the thing is a crude model of the two spheres I described above, although here it is the wizard world that is intrusive upon the human.

That specific element is what a lot of kids love about it . . . This idea of another world out there, one which is grander, more exciting, more colorful than our own. And, more importantly, one which is accessible only to a select few. Sound familiar? It should . . . Especially if we have any die-hard Calvinists out there.

Even aside from this, the series raises some very serious questions about the nature of good and evil, and the implications of a struggle between the two. What is right? What is wrong? How can you decide between them? It's deep stuff (as you will find that all good children's literature is).

I'm not quite sure why I thought it would be a good idea to drop Calvinists into the mix . . . so nevermind that. No one knew what I was talking about anyway, I'm afraid. Anyway, the following excerpt is from a post I made once the class was over, after a few people had expressed confusion regarding my earlier post.

While it is certainly true that fantasy is appealing because it provides an escape from the humdrum of everyday life, I was trying to get at something beyond even that. Think of two circles, side by side, but separate. One is the natural, one is the supernatural. At one time, those two circles were one, and then the Fall happened. Now we are separated from God and the supernatural in everyday life because of sin . . . But we still catch glimpses of the beyond.

There are still intrusions of the supernatural on the natural, the circles still have a slight overlap. We see it through miracles, God working in people's lives, etc. And this what true fantasy is all about: A window into worlds and situations where those circles are still very much a part of each other.

The next part isn't the easiest to get across. If you're a big fantasy fan, you'll know what I'm talking about. There is a certain indefinable something to the genre, I have learned to refer to it as an "otherness" simply because it is not anything that we can truly know, or understand, or experience in this life except in fleeting glimpses. In both The Last Battle, and the movie version of Return of the King, I think it is explained a bit.

The last chapter of The Last Battle concerns the "Shadowlands," (the world we live in), which is a dim reflection of what lies beyond, "further up and further in," waiting for us after death. In the movie, Gandalf says something to Pippin concerning death that really struck me, something to the effect of: "The gray rain curtain of this world rolls back, and all changes to silver glass, and then you see it . . . White shores, and beyond . . . a far green country under a swift sunrise."

So it's right there: This other world. But our eyes are closed to it until after we die . . . and then the dull, grungy curtain is pulled away and we realize that even the most beautiful things we know in this life are but dim reflections of something greater and more beautiful and more wonderful by far than anything we have or could have experienced while we lived on earth, and in the midst of that is God, defying description. And to me, this is what fantasy provides a glimpse of. This is what it's all about. It's even there a good bit in Harry Potter . . . the otherness, the something more.

I think a lot of times, Christians (and especially adults) have a hard time separating reality from would-be fantasy. They don't quite understand the concept of fiction that contains truth . . . it may sound like an oxymoron, but it isn't. And they especially don't understand that in fiction, the rules can be different without changing the fundamentals.

I cannot use what we mere mortals think of as genuine "magic," apart from demonic activity, in this world. But fantasy is not set in the world that we know . . . that's why it's fantasy. In the same way that Peter Pan can fly by thinking happy thoughts, (a physical impossibility in our world), Harry Potter can cast spells with a magic wand and not be a Satanist, (a spiritual impossibility in our world).

As far as measurable effects of this perceived danger, I would guess that roughly the same number of children have jumped out of windows with huge smiles on their faces after reading Peter Pan as have made contact with demons via spells they learned from Harry Potter.

Anyway, my point is that fantasy, far from being Satan's foothold in your life, is actually a window into a world of spritual truth and light. You just have to know what you're looking for . . .

That's basically what I got out of Inklings, in a nutshell. I mean . . . there was a lot of really cool stuff, but this new (to me) concept of fantasy and myth was my favorite bit, probably because I was sick of fighting this battle without any really compelling arguments to rely on, and equally sick of being vaguely uncertain from time to time that I was on the right side. So much for that.

So long as I've made a passing mention of Harry Potter being specifically targeted when other books are left alone, let me go a bit deeper into that. I found this piece from the Censorship News during my online wanderings and, while I realize that Christians taking a hardline will dismiss this as irrelevant, coming from a non-Christian as it does, I think it raises some important points. It was written by Judy Blume (another author whose books have often been banned), and this is the quote I'd like to focus on:

I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long -- as long as it took for the zealots who claim they're protecting children from evil (and evil can be found lurking everywhere these days) to discover that children actually like these books. If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect.

I'm not exactly unfamiliar with this line of thinking, having had various books of mine banned from schools over the last 20 years. In my books, it's reality that's seen as corrupting. With Harry Potter, the perceived danger is fantasy. After all, Harry and his classmates attend the celebrated Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. According to certain adults, these stories teach witchcraft, sorcery and satanism. But hey, if it's not one "ism," it's another. I mean Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time" has been targeted by censors for promoting New Ageism, and Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" for promoting racism. Gee, where does that leave the kids?

The question is not whether these books, or any books for that matter, are potentially harmful to children. Heck, eating out at fast food restaurants and driving your kids to school through heavy traffic are potentially harmful . . . The question is whether or not you can and will teach them to think critically about whatever it is that they are choosing to read rather than snatching away every book they seem to be enjoying a little too much and force-feeding them the latest dumbed-down Christian alternative.

In other words, there are two basic choices:

1) You can bulldoze stumbling blocks (real or perceived) out of their way as they grow up, until they leave the nest and not only can you no longer remove said blocks, but the kids don't see them because they don't know what blocks look like.

2) You can teach your children what stumbling blocks look like and show them how to step over said blocks.

Don't misunderstand me, I don't believe that the Harry Potter series actually is a stumbling block . . . but it is certainly something that children who know how to evaluate and analyze and think critically about what they are reading will be able to appreciate more. The uses of said skills clearly extend beyond the realm of stumbling block recognition and avoidance.

From this article (which I was quite pleased to find) we see an excellent explanation of where Harry Potter fantasy-magic diverges completely from Satanic "magic" and witchcraft (to the point where the two genuinely have absolutely nothing to do with each other). As such, and for other interesting bits of information and further discussion of Rowling's resemblance to the Inklings (and Tolkien specifically), I highly recommend that you read it in its entirety. It is excellent. The selection that I would like to highlight, however, is one that draws attention to one of the sterling "life lessons" that I mentioned earlier:

The clarity with which Rowling sees the need to choose between good and evil is admirable, but still more admirable, to my mind, is her refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the Good and the Evil. Harry Potter is unquestionably a good boy, but, as I have suggested, a key component of his virtue arises from his recognition that he is not inevitably good. When first–year students arrive at Hogwarts, they come to an assembly of the entire school, students and faculty. Each of them sits on a stool in the midst of the assembly and puts on a large, battered, old hat—the Sorting Hat, which decides which of the four houses the student will enter. After unusually long reflection, the Sorting Hat, to Harry’s great relief, puts him in Gryffindor, but not before telling him that he could achieve real greatness in Slytherin. This comment haunts Harry: he often wonders if Slytherin is where he truly belongs, among the pragmatists, the careerists, the manipulators and deceivers, the power–hungry, and the just plain nasty. Near the end of the second book, after a terrifying encounter with Voldemort . . . he confesses his doubts to Dumbledore.

"So I should be in Slytherin," Harry said, looking desperately into Dumbledore’s face. "The Sorting Hat could see Slytherin’s power in me, and it—"

"Put you in Gryffindor," said Dumbledore calmly. "Listen to me, Harry. You happen to have many qualities Salazar Slytherin prized in his hand–picked students. Resourcefulness . . . determination . . . a certain disregard for rules," he added, his moustache quivering again. "Yet the Sorting Hat placed you in Gryffindor. You know why that was. Think."

"It only put me in Gryffindor," said Harry in a defeated voice, "Because I asked not to go in Slytherin. . . ."

"Exactly," said Dumbledore, beaming once more. "Which makes you very different from [Voldemort]. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities." Harry sat motionless in his chair, stunned.

Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrongheaded from the start: he has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What must I do in order to become what I should be?" His character is not a fixed preexistent thing, but something that he has the responsibility for making: that’s why the Greeks called it character, "that which is engraved." It’s also what the Germans mean when they speak of Bildung, and the Harry Potter books are of course a multivolume Bildungsroman—a story of "education," that is to say, of character formation.

In addition to the many virtues demonstrated over and over again by the characters (great stuff like loyalty, friendship, tolerance, compassion, wisdom, courage, generosity, tenacity, trust, perseverance, humility . . . and I could go on . . .), the series repeatedly and reliably addresses the larger issues and questions of right and wrong, good and evil, life and death, appearance and reality, and coming of age.

But my original assertion hangs on more than a simple illustration of the possible teaching opportunities available in the Harry Potter series. This is the piece that I found while I was in the Inklings class. It is an excerpt from the book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter Novels" which I found to be quite a fascinating read (I am currently trying to acquire the book in its entirety on inter-library loan). Again, the entire bit is quite a good read (although I don't necessarily think he's 100% correct . . . the important thing is that he can draw those conclusions), but there is a particular portion that I would like to quote:

Chamber as Morality Play

Christian morality plays were the first theater in Western Europe. They were almost without exception either portrayals of Bible stories or 'Everyman' allegories of the soul's journey to salvation through thick and thin. Imagine medieval street dramas at public markets and fairs by itinerant players putting on variations of Pilgrim's Progress and the Passion Play. The finish to Chamber of Secrets, as morality play, is the clearest Christian allegory of salvation history since Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Let's look at it in detail.

Harry, our 'Every Man', enters the Chamber of Secrets to find and rescue Ginny Weasley. He finds her but she is unconscious and Harry cannot revive her. He meets Tom Riddle. He had thought Riddle was a friend and asks for his help in restoring Ginny. No deal.

He learns then that Riddle is anything but his friend; Tom Riddle is the young Lord Voldemort, Satan's 'stand in' in the Harry Potter books, the Dark Lord or Evil One. Far from helping him revive Ginny, Riddle has been the cause of her near death. Harry boldly confesses his loyalty to Albus Dumbledore and his belief that Dumbledore's power is greater than Voldemort's.

The Chamber is filled with Phoenix song at this point, heralding the arrival of Fawkes, Dumbledore's Phoenix, who brings Harry the Sorting Hat of Godric Gryffyndor. The Dark Lord laughs at "what Dumbledore sends his defender" (page 316) and offers to teach Harry a "little lesson". "Let's match the powers of Lord Voldemort, Heir of Salazar Slytherin, against famous Harry Potter, and the best weapons Dumbledore can give him"(page 317). He releases the giant Basilisk from his reservoir and the battle is joined.

The look of the Basilisk is death so Harry, eyes closed, runs from it. The Phoenix attacks the charging Basilisk and punctures its deadly eyes. Harry cries for help to "someone - anyone -" (page 319) as the Phoenix and blind Basilisk continue to battle; he is given the Sorting Hat- by a sweep of the Basilisk's tail. The Harry throws himself to the ground, rams the hat over his head, and begs for help again. A "gleaming silver sword" comes through the hat (page 320).

The Evil One directs the blind Basilisk to leave the Phoenix and attack the boy. It does. Harry drives the sword "to the hilt into the roof of the serpent's mouth" when it lunges for him - but one poisonous fang enters Harry's arm as the Basilisk falls to its death. Harry, mortally wounded, falls beside it. Phoenix weeps into Harry's wound as Riddle laughs at Harry's death.

Too late, Riddle remembers the healing powers of Phoenix tears and chases away the Phoenix. He then confronts the prostrate Harry and raises Harry's wand to murder him. The Phoenix gives Harry the diary and Harry drives the splintered Basilisk fang into it. Riddle dies and disappears as ink pours from the diary. Ginny revives and they escape. Holding the tail feathers of the Phoenix, they fly from the cavern "miles beneath Hogwarts" to safety and freedom above. Harry celebrates with Dumbledore.

Now let's translate this Morality Play. First, the cast of characters, the dramatis personae:

Harry is 'Every Man'

Ginny is 'Virgin Innocence, Purity'

Riddle/Voldemort is 'Satan, the Deceiver'

The Basilisk is 'Sin'

Dumbledore is 'God the Father'

Fawkes the Phoenix is 'Christ'

Phoenix Song is 'Holy Spirit'

Gryffyndor's Sword is 'the Sword of Faith/Spirit' (Ephesians 6:17)

The Chamber is 'the World' and

Hogwarts is 'Heaven'

The action of the drama, then, goes like this: man, alone and afraid in the World, loses his innocence. He tries to regain it but is prevented by Satan, who feeds on his fallen, lost innocence. Man confesses and calls on God the Father before Satan and is graced immediately by the Holy Spirit and the protective presence of Christ.

Satan confronts man with the greatness of his sins but Christ battles on Man's side for Man's salvation from his sins. God sends Man the Sword of Faith which he 'works' to slay his Christ-weakened enemy. His sins are absolved but the weight of them still mean Man's death. Satan rejoices.

But, wait, the voluntary suffering of Christ heals Man! Man rises from the dead, and, with Christ's help, Man destroys Satan. Man's innocence is restored and he leaves the World for Heaven by means of the Ascension of Christ. Man, risen with Christ, lives with God the Father in joyful thanksgiving.

If I look closely, I can imagine where different types of Christians might disagree with this thumbnail sketch of Everyman's salvation drama in emphasis and specific doctrines. It would be a very odd Christian indeed, though, who could not understand what the story was about and would not admire the artistry of the allegory. Using only traditional symbols, from the 'Ancient of Days' figure as God the Father to the satanic serpent and Christ-like phoenix ('the Resurrection Bird'), the drama takes us from the fall to eternal life without a hitch. Nothing philosophical or esoteric here (can you say 'no alchemy'?).

Rowling illustrates here that her books are Christian and in bold opposition to the spiritually dangerous books our children are often given. Chamber of Secrets is an example in the genre of an engaging, enlightening, and edifying reading experience for children - and a powerful rebuke and wake-up call to her Christian critics.

What is Chamber of Secrets about? Rowling, perhaps in response to the absence of intelligent discussion of Stone's meaning, in her second book clearly reveals to the discerning reader that she is writing Inkling fiction, i.e., stories that will prepare children for Christian spiritual life and combat with evil. Talk about baptizing the imagination with Christian symbols and doctrine!

I really don't know whether you can actually contend that Rowling did that on purpose, but it is undeniably there to be found. And this isn't an isolated incident within the series, either. Consider the first book for a moment. Again we have Harry himself as the "Every Man" character. Think of the entire opening portion as a metaphor for a spiritual journey.

Harry spends the first part of his life in darkness, surrounded by people who are blind to the truth around them. It is not until his 11th birthday that he discovers he is not of this world at all, and a whole new world opens up right before his eyes, where a wholly new and different life awaits him. And in this new world, he is the focal point of a battle between good and evil. Although he had received the mark of Voldemort at a very young age, and Voldemort still makes every effort to get at him, he is safe so long as he stays near Dumbledore (the only wizard that Voldemort fears).

And, at the climax, even when Dumbledore seems to have disappeared, leaving Harry to try and take care of things himself, we discover that there is more protecting him than we knew about all along.

"Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign . . . to have been loved so deeply . . . will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good."
-Dumbledore, (page 299)

I'm sure that someone like Granger could explain it more neatly . . . I probably could as well, but I don't think I need to spend anymore time on it as it should be very clear. Things like this don't just sneak in by accident, and the Harry Potter series is literally riddled with similair allegorical/symbolical scenarios, just waiting to be discovered.

Before I bring this post to a close, let's review the facts one last time:

1) The Harry Potter books fall directly into the classic classification of fantasy/myth/faerie as outlined by Tolkien and Lewis. As such, they serve as symbols of spiritual truth on the deepest, most subconscious level that can appeal to the human psyche and clearly identify Rowling as a mythopoeic subcreator of the highest caliber.

2) The Harry Potter books are perfect for teaching children valuable skills related to discernment, critical thinking, and literary analysis and evaluation . . . not to mention the pure enjoyment of reading and healthy dose of cultural literacy that can be acquired.

3) The Harry Potter books are a veritable gold mine of excellent lessons just waiting to be taught and pressing issues just waiting to be discussed concerning any number of subjects, virtues, and important questions.

4) The Harry Potter books are crammed to the very rafters with imagery that is blatantly Christian and obvious symbolism which is easily linked to many, if not most, (if not all) important Christian ideals and doctrines. This makes them excellent witnessing tools as they have already come crashing into mainstream culture in a big way that we would be remiss to ignore or denounce.

5) The Harry Potter books are a genuinely good read.

The Defense rests . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

June 08, 2004

Jared's Salute to Saki

After a ride from Gilbert Hall to Phys. Plant in the back of a pickup . . . in the pouring rain . . . after a long day of dabbing paint in corners and along edges . . . I am clearly ready for a blogpost. Clearly.

I promised a post on Saki and his Complete Works, and this is about the best I can do in just a few hours. Watson's copy of The Complete Works is nearly 950 pages long, and I certainly can't do that justice in terms of sheer quantity (to say nothing of the high quality). Hopefully, however, I can convey at least a sense of what I gleaned of the man who wrote it. As to his work, I highly recommend that you read some of it yourself.

I'll try and hit a few of the high points insofar as I judge they are important to understanding Hector Hugh Munro (aka Saki), but I encourage you to drop by Project Gutenburg and read some of his earlier short stories for yourself (unless you either already have, or you've heard those which I have read aloud from time to time).

Anyway, without further ado, we shall dive right in:

On this particular morning the sight of Lady Bastable enthroned among her papers gave Clovis the hint towards which his mind had been groping all breakfast time. His mother had gone upstairs to supervise packing operations, and he was alone on the ground-floor with his hostess--and the servants. The latter were the key to the situation. Bursting wildly into the kitchen quarters, Clovis screamed a frantic though strictly non-committal summons: "Poor Lady Bastable! In the morning-room! Oh, quick!" The next moment the butler, cook, page-boy, two or three maids, and a gardener who had happened to be in one of the outer kitchens were following in a hot scurry after Clovis as he headed back for the morning-room. Lady Bastable was roused from the world of newspaper lore by hearing a Japanese screen in the hall go down with a crash. Then the door leading from the hall flew open and her young guest tore madly through the room, shrieked at her in passing, "The jacquerie! They're on us!" and dashed like an escaping hawk out through the French window. The scared mob of servants burst in on his heels, the gardener still clutching the sickle with which he had been trimming hedges, and the impetus of their headlong haste carried them, slipping and sliding, over the smooth parquet flooring towards the chair where their mistress sat in panic- stricken amazement. If she had had a moment granted her for reflection she would have behaved, as she afterwards explained, with considerable dignity. It was probably the sickle which decided her, but anyway she followed the lead that Clovis had given her through the French window, and ran well and far across the lawn before the eyes of her astonished retainers.

That brief passage offers just a taste of the hilarity that awaits anyone who is fortunate enough to discover the adventures of Reginald and Clovis. It pretty much sums up everything I've loved about reading Saki . . . most of his stories are about that funny (of course, that particular story, "The Stampeding of Lady Bastable," has some good build-up and concluding remarks, but you get the gist . . .). But there's more to Saki and his writing than just the really funny stuff, as I hope to show in the rest of this post.

Now, a coupla weeks back I had just finished reading "When William Came" by Saki. Published early in 1914, it is basically a rather searing, pro-war indictment of England's general state of being. It is set in the not-too-distant future (as of publication date, of course) and it is an account of what happens after Germany has successfully defeated the British Navy and invaded and occupied England. Very interesting, being pre-WWI and all that . . .

I had my eye on a particular passage, near the end of the book, that I wanted to be sure and quote here. The main character is riding a train out into the country and he is joined by a Hungarian. The character (Yeovil, an Englishman) pretends to be from Russia in order to hear the Hungarian speak his mind on what he thinks of the current state of affairs.

A few excerpts:

In religion they had come to look on the Christ as a sort of amiable elder Brother, whose letters from abroad were worth reading. Then, when they had emptied all the divine mystery and wonder out of their faith naturally they grew tired of it . . . but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number . . .

They grew soft in their political ideas. For the old insular belief that all foreigners were devils and rogues they substituted another belief, equally grounded on insular lack of knowledge, that most foreigners were amiable, good fellows, who only needed to be talked to and patted on the back to become your friends and benefactors . . . Ah, the British lion was in a hurry to inaugurate the Millennium and to lie down gracefully with the lamb. He made two mistakes, only two, but they were very bad ones; the Millennium hadn't arrived, and it was not a lamb that he was lying down with.

The Hungarian gets off at the next station and he is replaced by an Englishman who is glad to hear that our hero is also English. He doesn't like travelling with foreigners. They begin to discuss the current state of affairs, and the new arrival expresses nothing but mindless optimism . . . He is certain that England can rebuild their army and navy and get Germany out of the country.

This is nonsense, of course, and Yeovil tells him so. As much as Yeovil would like for this to be true, he sees the depressing reality of the situation, and he expresses this in no uncertain terms to the other man.

"Here's my station and I'm not sorry," said the fisherman, gathering his tackle together and rising to depart; "I've listened to you long enough. You and me wouldn't agree, not if we was to talk all day. Fact is, I'm an out-and-out patriot and you're only a half-hearted one. That's what you are, half-hearted."

And with that parting shot he left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country's enemies with his tongue.

"England has never had any lack of patriots of that type," thought Yeovil sadly; "So many patriots and so little patriotism."

I feel like this from time to time . . . and I suspect that if I was more vocal about what I thought sometimes, I'd feel even more beat-down by all the blasted, rabid patriots running about with stars (and stripes) in their eyes.

Anyway, I've quoted Saki on occasion during the course of my reading of his complete works. He picked up the mantle of dry, witty social commentary dropped by Oscar Wilde (publishing his first collection of short stories in 1902).

When WWI started, although he was overage, he joined the army . . . For some reason, he turned down a commission, enlisting as an ordinary soldier. He was killed in France, by a sniper, in late 1916.

Dreadful waste.

At least, however, we had Wodehouse on hand to step into the role . . . and he proceeded to fill it for the next three decades or so. No single volume collections of his complete works, let me tell you this. But I'll be readin' 'em as I happen upon 'em.

Anyway, back to Saki . . . I think that the difference between him and Wilde or Wodehouse is the razor-sharp edge that he seems to have developed over the course of his writing. His earliest collections of short stories show a kind of good-natured tolerance of the quirky existence led by the upper-crust of society. However, as time goes on, the stories get a good bit darker, and a great deal more vindictive.

His foolish characters are quite likely, at any given moment, to be devoured by wolves or to drown after falling through a patch of thin ice (for instance). One hapless woman is savaged to death in her own shed by a mad weasel. Another particularly amusing (though gruesome) episode has "Suffragetae" of Ancient Rome being torn apart by an arena full of dozens of ravenous wild beasts. His protagonists gradually shift from dryly dropping cute, witty one-liners (of the Wilde variety) while nibbling at muffins to staring seriously off into space and delivering solemn (albeit unconventional) speeches on the meaning of life and death. His antagonists go from being offended to being offed.

His novel, "The Unbearable Bassington," (1912) shows this shift in microcosm. The entire beginning is fairly light-hearted and includes all of the usual elements. Comus Bassington is Saki's typical Clovis/Reginald character, hopping in and out of amusing scrapes with sickening ease and generally causing his mother and uncle grief within their snooty social circle. But he has to get himself a rich wife, because he is one of those leeches who will never really be able to support himself and he hasn't got a large family fortune holding him up . . . but when he blows that, his mother (Francesca) exiles him to a colonial post in deepest darkest Africa.

His going-away party is one of the most dreary scenes I've ever read, full of dark foreshadowing omens hinting that he will never return from Africa alive. In the very next scene, we find him there, grimly contemplating his fate:

It was almost a relief to turn back to that other outlook and watch the village life that was now beginning to wake in earnest. The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

Staring dumbly out at the toiling sweltering human ant-hill Comus marvelled how missionary enthusiasts could labour hopefully at the work of transplanting their religion, with its homegrown accretions of fatherly parochial benevolence, in this heat-blistered, fever-scourged wilderness, where men lived like groundbait and died like flies. Demons one might believe in, if one did not hold one's imagination in healthy check, but a kindly all-managing God, never. Somewhere in the west country of England Comus had an uncle who lived in a rose-smothered rectory and taught a wholesome gentle-hearted creed that expressed itself in the spirit of "Little lamb, who made thee?" and faithfully reflected the beautiful homely Christ-child sentiment of Saxon Europe. What a far away, unreal fairy story it all seemed here in this West African land, where the bodies of men were of as little account as the bubbles that floated on the oily froth of the great flowing river, and where it required a stretch of wild profitless imagination to credit them with undying souls. In the life he had come from Comus had been accustomed to think of individuals as definite masterful
personalities, making their several marks on the circumstances that revolved around them; they did well or ill, or in most cases indifferently, and were criticised, praised, blamed, thwarted or tolerated, or given way to. In any case, humdrum or outstanding, they had their spheres of importance, little or big. They dominated a breakfast table or harassed a Government, according to
their capabilities or opportunities, or perhaps they merely had irritating mannerisms. At any rate it seemed highly probable that they had souls. Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind--that would be all.

He sees some African children playing outside . . .

Those wild young human kittens represented the joy of life, he was the outsider, the lonely alien, watching something in which he could not join, a happiness in which he had no part or lot. He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers' feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away. He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether anyone else really loved him, and now he realised what he had made of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as perversely. Fate played with him with loaded dice; he would lose always.

One person in the whole world had cared for him [his mother], for longer than he could remember, cared for him perhaps more than he knew, cared for him perhaps now. But a wall of ice had mounted up between him and her, and across it there blew that cold-breath that chills or kills affection.

The words of a well-known old song, the wistful cry of a lost cause, rang with insistent mockery through his brain:

"Better loved you canna be,
Will ye ne'er come back again?"

If it was love that was to bring him back he must be an exile for ever. His epitaph in the mouths of those that remembered him would be, Comus Bassington, the boy who never came back.

And in his unutterable loneliness he bowed his head on his arms, that he might not see the joyous scrambling frolic on yonder hillside.

The next chapter is the last chapter and his mother receives a telegram which she knows will inform her of his death. She puts off opening it, hoping to delay the news a little while longer (he is still alive so long as she does not know he is dead). Her brother comes in to deliver some bad news of a relatively trivial nature and mistakes her anguished expression, prattling on and on in an attempt to cheer her up.

Francesca sat in stricken silence, crushing the folded morsel of paper tightly in her hand and wondering if the thin, cheerful voice with its pitiless, ghastly mockery of consolation would never stop.

And that's the end of the book. Dismal stuff.

From what I can gather after reading all of his writings, I would say this: Saki was a fairly cynical individual, but he was also an idealist and his intellect was offended more and more by what he saw of both the social and the political atmosphere of England as he got older. He knew that the world was changing very drastically and he was frustrated by two large segments of the population: 1) Those who were stagnating in the past, refusing to let go of the old ways even though the results of holding on were potentially disastrous. 2) Those who were stupidly happy about a forthcoming "modern age" and were ready to welcome it in for all the wrong reasons and banish the past entirely without learning anything from it. As you can imagine, this accounted for a rather large percentage of the population . . .

There's a deeper sense of melancholia buried in there somewhere as well, and I don't know where it comes from. I suspect that he . . . well:

"The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think."
-Horace Walpole

That about sums it up, really. Anyway . . .

Here's to a great author who died before his time . . .

*raises glass of Japanese rice wine*

Posted by Jared at 05:35 PM | TrackBack

May 09, 2004

"Be thou armed for some unhappy words."

The Shadow Council presents "The Taming of the Shrew" (and here you thought I'd forgotten! Ha!)

Scholl- Petruchio
Anna- Hostess, Katherine, Bianca, Widow
Gallagher- Bartholomew, Bianca, Grumio, Gremio, Lucentio, Vincentio, Pedant, Widow, Haberdasher
Wilson- Lord, Lucentio, Tailor, Philip
Myself- Cristopher Sly, Curtis, Hortensio, Biondello, Nicholas
Sharptiano- 2nd Huntsman, 2nd Servant, Player, Tranio, Nathaniel
Randy- 1st Huntsman, 1st Servant, Baptista Minola, Joseph
Scott- 3rd Huntsman, 3rd Servant, Gremio

And so we end the dramatic season at LeTourneau . . . out with a bang, not a whimper. I think that's everyone. That's the problem with having to wait nearly a week before I get around to typing this up. Nevertheless, it was buku fun, especially with our resident squabbling couple playing the fictional brawlers. One thing mystified me, though. We've all seen Scholl get clobbered good and proper, both with and without cause, on a fairly regular basis. But when Anna, playing Katherine, was instructed by the stage directions to deliver a well-deserved clout to Petruchio, she barely made contact with that fist. Scholl should only be so lucky in real life . . .

Kudos to Gallagher on playing nine characters . . . that I remember. So much fun . . . in that last scene we had, what . . .? Playing a character, the same character's father, the man pretending to be that character's father, that character's wife, one of that character's former rivals for the affections of said wife, the wife of that character's other former rival, and the resident wise-cracking servant. *deep breath* Phew!

I now have this version of the play on the way from Netflix. I only saw bits and pieces of it in Shakespeare class, but from what I did see, you haven't seen fireworks until you've seen Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor squaring off. Yikes. Trust me, you don't want none of this. Or this. That woman is a menace.

And with that, I officially declare the season to be at a close. As if it weren't already. See you next season, folks . . . I hope.

Posted by Jared at 09:00 PM | TrackBack

May 02, 2004

Sunday's Supplementary Smattering

Well, I did a bit of reading today, on the side . . . Just a few things from the Norton Anthology that caught my eye (amusing/interesting/worthwhile excerpts included below the fold):

"Why the Novel Matters" by D. H. Lawrence

Quite a special little essay this. And I'm sure you'll all recognize some familiar worldviews in the included excerpt . . . Not to mention some very ripe heresy and/or blasphemy. However, that's hardly the point of the thing. I can't help but get a bit of enjoyment out of someone who takes the idea that The Novel is the be-all and end-all of human existence and runs with it in such a brilliantly winning fashion . . . And then, with only the slightest bit of chutzpah, quite naturally asserts that novelists are, therefore, the supreme beings.

Oh, yes. And what's that you ask? Was he . . .?

Yes, D. H. Lawrence was a novelist. Clearly.

"Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" by George Eliot

The title of this (rather lengthy, as it turned out) essay just caught my eye . . . I can't imagine why. I was highly amused at the idea of George Eliot writing such an essay, so I read it, and it was quite good. She isn't just addressing women authors, either, I don't think . . . That is, it seemed to me that this is the sort of essay that every novelist should have to read, and could probably profit from.

In any case, that isn't the point of the essay. No doubt she would have addressed herself to all novelists if her purpose had been to halt (or slow . . . or discuss . . . or whatever) the production of silly novels. What she is doing, however, is imploring the women who insist on writing these monstrosities to cease and desist forthwith, as they are giving the entire gender a bad rep and slowing positive progress considerably. Imagine that . . .

"The Daughters of the Late Colonel" by Katherine Mansfield

When I started this short story, I thought it was rather morbidly funny, but by the end it was . . . quite poignant. It simply follows the activities of two spinster sisters (Josephine and Constantia . . . or "Jug" and "Con") as they struggle not to let their world fall completely apart in the mess of events after the death of their father: interacting with well-wishers, attending the funeral, trying to go through his things and set his affairs in order. Basically, they have to try to figure out where they're headed after what is the first real disruptive thing that has ever happened in their lives . . . Lives which they've never been in charge of before.

It's hard to tell from the ending of the story, but I wasn't sure that they really had anywhere to go. The story is set during the same time as it was written, I presume (the early 'twenties), and the sisters are now one tiny, isolated remnant of a society that had been dead for nearly a decade (at least), and dying for a few decades before that. Unless they can break through that bubble (and they seem to be right at the barrier, as you read the last bit of dialogue, pushing at it, but not breaking through), then they're pretty much stuck in a rather inane and safe, but purposeless, existence for their remaining years (however long or short those may turn out to be).

Interesting story . . . lots of interesting themes and ideas . . . no time to put any further thought or energy into it this week. Blast and bebother . . . G'night.

Excerpt from "Why the Novel Matters"

Nothing is important but life. And for myself, I can absolutely see life nowhere but in the living. Life with a capital L is only man alive. Even a cabbage in the rain is cabbate alive. All things that are alive are amazing. And all things that are dead are subsidiary to the living. Better a live dog than a dead lion. But better a live lion than a live dog. C'est la vie!

It seems impossible to get a saint, or a philosopher, or a scientist, to stick to this simple truth. They are all, in a sense, renegades. The saint wishes to offer himself up as spiritual food for the multitude. Even Francis of Assisi turns himself into a sort of angel-cake, of which anyone may take a slice. But and angel-cake is rather less than man alive. And poor St. Francis might well apologise to his body, when he is dying: "Oh, pardon me, my body, the wrong I did you through the years!" It was no wafer, for others to eat.

The philosopher, on the other hand, because he can think, decides that nothing but thoughts matter. It is as if a rabbit, because he can make little pills, should decide that nothing but little pills matter. As for the scientist, he has absolutely no use for me so long as I am man alive. To the scientist, I am dead. He puts under the microscope a bit of dead me, and calls it me. He takes me to pieces, and says first once piece, and then another piece, is me. My heart, my liver, my stomach have all been scientifically me, according to the scientist; and nowadays I am either a brain, or nerves, or glands, or something more up-to-date in the tissue line.

Now I absolutely flatly deny that I am a soul, or a body, or a mind, or an intelligence, or a brain, or a nervous system, or a bunch of glands, or any of the rest of these bits of me. The whole is greater than the part. And therefore, I, who am man alive, am greater than my sould, or spirit, or body, or mind, or consciousness, or anything else that is merely a part of me. I am a man, and alive. I am man alive, and as long as I can, I intend to go on being mand alive.

For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.

The novel is the one bright book of life. Books are not life. They are only tremulations on the ether. But the novel as a tremulation can make the whole man alive tremble. Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do.

The novel is the book of life. In this sense, the Bible is a great confused novel. You may say, it is about God. But it is really about man alive. Adam, Ave, Sarai, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Samuel, David, Bath-Sheba, Ruth, Esther, Solomon, Job, Isaiah, Jesus, Mark, Judas, Paul, Peter: what is it but man alive, from start to finish? Man alive, not mere bits. Even the Lord is another man alive, in a burning bush, throwing the tablets of stone at Moses's head.
_ _ _

I don't believe in any dazzling revelation, or in any supreme Word. "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, but the Word of the Lord shall stand for ever." That's the kind of stuff we've drugged ourselves with. As a matter of fact, the grass withereth, but comes up all the greener for that reason, after the rains. The flower fadeth, and therefore the bud opens. But the Word of the Lord, being man-uttered and a mere vibration on the ether, becomes staler and staler, more and more boring, till at last we turn a deaf ear and it ceases to exist, far more finally than any withered grass. It is grass that renews its youth like the eagle, not any Word.

We should ask for no absolutes, or absolute. Once and for all and for ever, let us have done with the ugly imperialism of any absolute. There is no absolute good, there is nothing absolutely right. All things flow and change, and even change is not absolute. The whole is a strange assembly of apparently incongruous parts, slipping past one another.
_ _ _

In life, there is right and wrong, good and bad, all the time. But what is right in one case is wrong in another. And in the novel you can see one man becoming a corpse, because of his so-called goodness, another going dead because of his so-called wickedness. Right and wrong is an instinct: but an instinct of the whole consciousness in a man, bodily, mental, spiritual at once. And only in the novel are all things given full play, or at least, they may be given full play, when we realize that life itself, and not inert safety, is the reason for living. For out of the full play of all things emerges the only thing that is anything, the wholeness of a man, the wholeness of a woman, man live, and live woman.

Excerpt from "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists"

"Be not a baker if your head be made of butter," says a homely proverb, which, being interpreted, may mean, let no woman rush into print who is not prepared for the consequences. We are aware that our remarks are in a very different tone from that of the reviewers who, with a perennial recurrence of precisely similar emotions, only paralleled, we imagine, in the experience of monthly nurses, tell one lady novelist after another that they "hail" her productions "with delight." We are aware that the ladies at whom our criticism is pointed are accustomed to be told, in the choicest phraseology of puffery, that their pictures of life are brilliant, their characters well drawn, their style fascinating, and their sentiments lofty. But if they are inclined to resent our plainness of speech, we ask them to reflect for a moment on the chary praise, and often captious blame, which their panegyrists give to writers whose works are on the way to become classics. No sooner does a woman show that she has genius or effective talent, than she receives the tribute of being moderately praised and severely criticised. By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men. And every critic who forms a high estimate of the share women may ultimately take in literature, will, on principle, abstain from any exceptional indulgence towards the productions of literary women. For it must be plain to every one who looks impartially and extensively into feminine literature, that its greatest deficiencies are due hardly more to the want of intellectual power than to the want of those moral qualities that contribute to literary excellence -- patient diligence, a sense of the responsibility involved in publication, and an appreciation of the sacredness of the writer's art. In the majority of women's books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent. The foolish vanity of wishing to appear in print, instead of being counterbalanced by any consciousness of the intellectual or moral derogation implied in futile authorship, seems to be encouraged by the extremely false impression that to write at all is a proof of superiority in a woman. On this ground, we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature, and that while the few women who write well are very far above the ordinary intellectual level of their sex, the many women who write ill are very far below it. So that, after all, the severer critics are fulfilling a chivalrous duty in depriving the mere fact of feminine authorship of any false prestige which may give it a delusive attraction, and in recommending women of mediocre faculties - as at least a negative service they can render their sex - to abstain from writing.

Excerpt from "The Daughters of the Late Colonel"

Well, at any rate, all that part of it was over, though neither of them
could possibly believe that father was never coming back. Josephine had
had a moment of absolute terror at the cemetery, while the coffin was
lowered, to think that she and Constantia had done this thing without
asking his permission. What would father say when he found out? For he
was bound to find out sooner or later. He always did. "Buried. You two
girls had me buried!" She heard his stick thumping. Oh, what would they
say? What possible excuse could they make? It sounded such an appallingly
heartless thing to do. Such a wicked advantage to take of a person because
he happened to be helpless at the moment. The other people seemed to treat
it all as a matter of course. They were strangers; they couldn't be
expected to understand that father was the very last person for such a
thing to happen to. No, the entire blame for it all would fall on her and
Constantia. And the expense, she thought, stepping into the tight-buttoned
cab. When she had to show him the bills. What would he say then?

She heard him absolutely roaring. "And do you expect me to pay for this
gimcrack excursion of yours?"

"Oh," groaned poor Josephine aloud, "we shouldn't have done it, Con!"

And Constantia, pale as a lemon in all that blackness, said in a frightened
whisper, "Done what, Jug?"

"Let them bu-bury father like that," said Josephine, breaking down and
crying into her new, queer-smelling mourning handkerchief.

"But what else could we have done?" asked Constantia wonderingly. "We
couldn't have kept him, Jug--we couldn't have kept him unburied. At any
rate, not in a flat that size."

Josephine blew her nose; the cab was dreadfully stuffy.

"I don't know," she said forlornly. "It is all so dreadful. I feel we
ought to have tried to, just for a time at least. To make perfectly sure.
One thing's certain"--and her tears sprang out again--"father will never
forgive us for this--never!"
_ _ _

If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody
for them to marry. There had been father's Anglo-Indian friends before he
quarrelled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single
man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they'd met them,
how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers?
One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But
nobody had ever followed Constantia and her. Oh yes, there had been one
year at Eastbourne a mysterious man at their boarding-house who had put a
note on the jug of hot water outside their bedroom door! But by the time
Connie had found it the steam had made the writing too faint to read; they
couldn't even make out to which of them it was addressed. And he had left
next day. And that was all. The rest had been looking after father, and
at the same time keeping out of father's way. But now? But now? The
thieving sun touched Josephine gently. She lifted her face. She was drawn
over to the window by gentle beams...

Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha,
wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like
longing. She remembered the times she had come in here, crept out of bed
in her nightgown when the moon was full, and lain on the floor with her
arms outstretched, as though she was crucified. Why? The big, pale moon
had made her do it. The horrible dancing figures on the carved screen had
leered at her and she hadn't minded. She remembered too how, whenever they
were at the seaside, she had gone off by herself and got as close to the
sea as she could, and sung something, something she had made up, while she
gazed all over that restless water. There had been this other life,
running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval,
discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on
approval, and arranging father's trays and trying not to annoy father. But
it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn't real. It
was only when she came out of the tunnel into the moonlight or by the sea
or into a thunderstorm that she really felt herself. What did it mean?
What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?

Posted by Jared at 11:43 PM | TrackBack

May 01, 2004

Philip Larkin, James Fenton & The Memorial Obsession

(Note: Poems discussed are "beneath the fold" in the Extended Entry.)

Again, we have a case of four poems by four poets being assigned, and I find myself making an executive decision to focus on two of them. I picked these two because of the connections, as you can possibly tell. In true Forster fashion, we like connections, and these fit quite nicely into some previously addressed topics . . .

Larkin's "Church Going," first of all, was fun for me to read, managing, as it does, to evoke nostalgia over the loss of a locale (churches) that is still quite easily found (perhaps too easily, lest we take it for granted) in the world. The poem makes one feel as if the day of the church is over, or at least as if its day is waning, and I feel nostalgic. The speaker steps inside a church when he knows nothing is going on in there, and shuffles about a bit inside, checking things out, half-reverent, half-idly curious, and never fully knowing why he has decided to stop and pursue this seemingly pointless investigation.

And then he starts to speculate on what will happen to churches when we stop using them, as he feels we inevitably will. When he said that, I couldn't help but leap immediately to the "Hymn to Proserpine." We're speaking of the same thing here: A religion over thrown and falling slowly into disuse and decay, it makes sense to look to it for guidance in helping us imagine how this new scenario will play out. Of course, what would you like to think about your church? That it wouldn't fall into complete disuse, right? That perhaps you'll have "dubious women come to make their children touch a particular stone?" But you and the poet both know quite well that this cannot last, and then what? You've still got an abandoned sanctuary. Who comes to visit it now, and why?

Think of the ruined temples of Ancient Greece, in fact, think even of the ruins where Early Christian church services were once held (in places like Ephesus, Galatia, and Philippi) . . . Do we not have all the types of people he names here visiting such places? Think of LeTourneau students, happily trooping along behind Dr. Hummel as he leads them tromping through a place like this. Which category do they fall into? “The crew that tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?” Do we not know that, in the end, most of the people that show up to gawk will fall into the "bored, uninformed" category? How do we deal with that?

Larkin successfully places us, as Christians, in the position that Swinburne's Roman Poet is in, or rather will be in before he dies, but is not in quite yet. In this new world, the quiet shrines of our religion are, inevitably, fading away in a most pathetic fashion. Not even allowed to rest in solemn and dignified peace but constantly plagued by the irreverent feet of the ignorant or the curious or the morbidly fanatical. That is, of course, not all there is to this poem, but it struck me.

Second, we have "A German Requiem," a very quiet, moving, written tribute to the German Jews who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. The horrible way in which they were taken from the world makes it necessary to remember them, (the poem tells us) not from what is left behind, but rather from what is not. This is how they are remembered, then: Through what is missing, and through people meeting together to remind themselves of where they have gone, for they left so little behind. This is illustrated in a sadly funny . . . a humorously melancholy . . . fashion in the verse concerning the bodies buried with only the little plaques and cards, which they used to direct their visitors in life, to mark where they are now in death. That was all that could be done, if even that much, for the deceased.

And the poet reminds us that: "Grief must have its term? Guilt too, then." (NA 2855) This, too, is part of why they remember. I chose to look at this poem in particular (in addition to the other) for two reasons (not counting the fact that I particularly liked it).

First, because I think it connects in a very small, but important way with the themes I discussed from the Voices of World War I. The poetry that came out of that war showed us a generation and a world that was forever changed by the horrors they encountered on the battlefield. This poem, although it was written in 1981, nevertheless captures the sense of how our world has once again been changed by the shocking discovery of the “inhuman” depths to which humanity is capable of sinking, even now, in what many had thought to call a modern, and a civilized, and especially an enlightened time. Many people came out of World War I with the hope that humanity could learn from its mistakes, even as it was in the process of repeating them, and that led directly to this atrocity, in which all of humanity is somehow implicated. As dark and terrible as World War I was, things could still go downhill, and they did.

Second, because I think in both this poem and the other one I mention we see a certain recognition of a passing or a fading away of memory. Larkin sees this as inevitable, and merely spends his energies conjuring up visions of the future. In what different ways will people respond to the slow decay of the symbols of a major world religion? Fenton, on the other hand, actively dredges up the reasons why we can, will, and should remember, and his poem itself serves as a reminder, lest we forget even as we read it. I suppose this makes Fenton the more responsible poet, and I think I prefer his active response to humanity’s notoriously short attention-span over Larkin’s passive acceptance of it.

"Church Going" by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence.

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new -
Cleaned, or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
'Here endeth' much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches will fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

"A German Requiem" by James Fenton

It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the space between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.
Yesterday the very furniture seemed to reprach you.
Today you take your place in the Widow's Shuttle.

The bus is waiting at the southern gate
To take you to the city of your ancestors
Which stands on the hill opposite, with gleaming pediments,
As vivid as this charming square, your home.
Are you shy? You should be. It is almost like a wedding,
The way you clasp your flowers and give a little tug at your veil. Oh,
The hideous bridesmaids, it is natural that you should resent them
Just a little, on this first day.
But that will pass, and the cemetery is not far.
Here comes the driver, flicking a toothpick into the gutter,
His tongue still searching between his teetch.
See, has not noticed you. No one has noticed you.
It will pass, young lady, it will pass.
How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.
As on those special days, ladies and gentlemen,
When the boiled shirts gather at the graveside
And a leering waistcoat approaches the rostrum.
It is like a solemn pact between the survivors.
The mayor has signed it on behalf of the freemasonry.
The priest has sealed it on behalf of all the rest.
Nothing more need be said, and it is better that way--

The better for the widow, that she should not live in fear of surprise,
The better for the young man, that he should move at liberty between the armchairs,
The better that these bent figures who flutter among the graves
Tending the nightlights and replacing the chrysanthemums
Are not ghosts,
That they shall go home.
The bus is waiting, and on the upper terraces
The workmen are dismantling the houses of the dead.

But when so many had died, so many and at such speed,
There were no cities waiting for the victims.
They unscrewed the name-plates from the shattered doorways
And carried them away with the coffins.
So the squares and parks were filled with the eloquence of young cemeteries:
The smell of fresh earth, the improvised crosses
And all the impossible directions in brass and enamel.

"Doctor Gliedschirm, skin specialist, surgeries 14-16 hours or by appointment."
Professor Sargnagel was buried with four degrees, two associate memberships
And instructions to tradesmen to use the back entrance.
Your uncle's grave informed you that he lived on the third floor, left.
You were asked please to ring, and he would come down in the lift
To which one needed a key . . .

Would come down, would ever come down
With a smile like thing gruel, and never too much to say.
How he shrank through the years.
How you towered over him in the narrow cage.
How he shrinks now . . .

But come. Grief must have its term? Guilt too, then.
And it seems there is no limit to the resourcefulness of recollection.
So that a man might say and think:
When the world was its darkest,
When the black wings passed over the rooftops
(And who can divine His purposes?) even then
There was always, always a fire in this hearth.
You see this cupboard? A priest-hole!
And in that lumber-room whole generations have been housed and fed.
Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you
The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!

His wife nods, and a secret smile,
Like a breeze with enough strength to carry one dry leaf
Over two pavingstones, passes from chair to chair.
Even the enquirer is charmed.
He forgets to pursue the point.
It is not what he wants to know.
It is what he wants not to know.
It is not what they say.
It is what they do not say.

Posted by Jared at 06:42 PM | TrackBack

April 30, 2004

Jewish History According to Antichrist

I am currently reading All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams . . . and, oh, is it good. The following page-long paragraph struck me when I read it as being the perfect example of why I love Charles Williams. This is the beginning of a long section involving the thoughts of the Antichrist figure in the novel as he contemplates his place in the world and how history and, later, his own life have led to this point. Below is, as you can tell from the title, his view of Jewish history. Note the brilliant way that he has it just off . . . magnificently deceptive, with a few interesting truths poked in to throw you off . . .

Anyway, it's cool. Read it.

Indeed that august race had reached in this being its second climax. Two thousand years of history were drawing to a close; until this thing had happened it could not be free. Its priesthood- the priesthood of a nation- had been since Abraham determined to one End. But when, after other terrible wars had shaken the Roman peace, and armies had moved over Europe, and Caesar (being all that Caesar could be) had been stabbed in his own central place, when that End had been born, they were not aware of that End. It had been proposed that their lofty tradition should be made almost unbearably august; that they should be made the blood companions of their Maker, the own peculiar house and family of its Incarnacy- no more than the Gentiles in the free equality of souls, but much more in the single hierarchy of kindred flesh. But deception had taken them; they had, bidding a scaffold for the blasphemer, destroyed their predestined conclusion, and the race which had been set for the slavation of the world became a judgement and a curse to the world and to themselves. Yet the oaths sworn in heaven remained. It had been the Jewish girl who, at the command of the Voice which sounded in her ears, in her heart, along her blood and through the central cells of her body, had uttered eveywhere in herself the perfect Tetragrammaton. What the high priest vicariously spoke among the secluded mysteries of the Temple, she substantially pronounced to God. Redeemed from all division in herself, whole and identical in body and soul and spirit, she uttered the Word and the Word became flesh in her. Could It have been received by her own people, the grand Judean gate would have been opened for all peoples. It could not. They remained alien- to It and to all, and all to them and- too much!- to It. The Gentiles, summoned by that other Jew of Tarsus, could not bear their vicarious office. Bragging themselves to be the new Israel, they slandered and slew the old, and the old despised and hated the bragging new. Till at last there rose in Europe something which was neither, and set itself to destroy both.

And then, a few pages later, we get to the following really crazy paragraph, concerning the Antichrist himself, and something more:

He was not, in fact, much different from any man, but the possibiliites slowly opened to him were more rare. There shaped itself gradually in his mind a fame beyond any poet's and a domination beyond any king's. But it was fame and domination that he desired, as they did. That his magical art extended where theirs could never reach was his luck. The understanding of his reach had come when he first assisted at a necromantic operation. As the dead body stood and spoke he felt the lordship of that other half of the world. Once, as he had learned the tale, the attempt at domination had been made and failed. The sorcerer who had attempted it had also been a Jew, a descendant of the house of David, who clothed in angelic brilliance had compelled a woman of the same house to utter the Name, and something more thant mortal had been born. But in the end the operation had failed. Of the end of the sorcerer himself there were no records; Joseph ben David had vanished. The living thing that had been born of his feminine counterpart had perished miserably. It had been two thousand years before anyone had dared to risk the attempt again.

That is the most marrow-freezing paragraph I have ever read, I think. The full implication is of immeasurable proportions, but nevermind that . . .

Is there something to this, you think? *notes horrified looks* Wait, let me clarify that. Is there anything to this idea of the Antichrist simply seeing himself as the culmination of the second attempt in history to gain dominance over the human race through some sort of higher powers that he mysteriously finds that he alone possesses? Go ponder that for a bit. Or don't . . .

Bible study time . . . *evil grin*

Posted by Jared at 10:17 PM | TrackBack

April 28, 2004

Edward Morgan Forster & The "Hook-Up" Obsession

Ummm . . . right. I want to say right at the beginning that the fact that Forster was gay is utterly irrelevant to everything. With Wilde, that was *it* . . . here it most certainly *is not.* Really. No, seriously. Geez, will you stop obsessing about it already? Oh, and of course it has absolutely nothing to do with my selection of titles! Oh my goodness! Get your mind out of the gutter! This can't go anywhere good, I'm abandoning paragraph . . .

Alright. The happy news is that I have none of the author's work to paste in here. It's all way too long and this is a review of the movie version of one of his novels anyway. Title: "A Passage to India," and let me just say that it was good movie which I thoroughly enjoyed and . . . I should probably go into this a bit better. Hold on. Let me switch paragraphs again.

There. As I was saying, I had a very good time watching this movie. Dr. Watson swears that the guy sitting behind him (presumably when he originally saw the movie in '84?) said nothing happened in the movie. Outrageous! Or, at least, if it is true, I was far too busy trying to look at the movie and watch it at the same time to notice whether this nebulous concept of "something" was actually going on. The really cool thing about the movie, I think, was that it succeeded enormously at making India itself a central character. From the single chapter I read of the novel, and what I picked up from watching the movie and looking at Forster's key ideas, I think that this is absolutely vital.

The portrayal of India is what makes the movie rich and full of flavor. I remember especially a very breath-taking shot near the beginning of the train traveling across a vast, empty plain. You can tell that the plain is very green and that the railroad track is the only real sign of human civilization in it, but the shot is taken at night and there are stars overhead and so forth. And right in the foreground of the shot is the statue of some sort of Hindu god I believe, with all of the arms and everything. It takes up probably a third of the screen, and it seems to be gazing imperiously out over this huge domain that it owns, (whatever the British may think), while studiously ignoring the insignificant train as it crawls by. That particular shot is one among many that captured my imagination and drew me into the movie. The acting was quite superb, as well.

The basic plot of the movie is this: An elderly Englishwoman named Mrs. Moore is journeying to India to visit her son, who is the City Magistrate of Chandrapore. She is accompanied by Adela Quested, her son's fiancée. Both of them are eager to experience "the real India" while they are there. Upon arrival, this desire is frustrated by what they rightly perceive as the insufferable attitude of superiority that all of the other Brits in India hold with respect to the native Indians.

However, this notwithstanding, Mrs. Moore strikes up a chance friendship one night with an Indian named Dr. Aziz, and it is through the combined efforts of Dr. Aziz and Mr. Fielding, the principal of the local university who also happens to be the only British citizen in the city who does not hold himself above the Indians, that the two women will be able to experience India as they wish to experience it. Incidental, but strangely important, to these activities is Professor Godbole, the "Inscrutable Brahman," (hilariously portrayed by Alec Guinness).

Their endeavors will lead to Miss Quested rethinking the basis of her entire life, including her love of Ronny, to Dr. Aziz closely considering the question of whether the English and the Indians can successfully form friendships that bridge the differences of culture and race, to Mr. Fielding examining just how far his well-balanced respect of all men can stretch, and, ultimately, to an explosive trial, centered around all of the major characters, which brings Chandrapore, and perhaps all of India, to the brink of bloody revolution.

Are we drooling yet? No? *shrugs* Oh, well . . . We can't all be me, I suppose. And, let me be the first to point out, it would be dashed inconvenient if we were.

It is a fascinating look at the cultural barrier between the East and the West, the British Colonial system circa World War I, the loss of innocence that contact with a more "advanced" culture inevitably brings, and, of course, with the importance of making connections (or forming friendships, if you prefer). It is a movie that is full of significant suggestion and allusion, if comparatively little significant action. But enough dancing around it all . . . time to dive into the heart of the thing. What is the point of it all?

I am quite reluctant to focus entirely on the "making connections" angle because Dr. Watson covered that one in class, and I'm all about doing my own thing in these journals . . . but I gotta say something about it, both because it is huge and because it is meaningful to me.

It would appear that a big part of this movie, if not the big part of this movie, is that the best thing you can do with life is to go through it making connections with people. Now, I arrived at something very much like this conclusion nearly three years ago, and have been developing it ever since, but from an entirely different basis. The center and key to life, Forster would say, is in human relationships . . . and I would nearly agree. Relationships, one in particular, are the center and key, and human relationships are very near to that center.

Forster was working from the assumption that this *throws arm out in sweeping arc* is it. Do what you're going to do on this planet, because life does not proceed beyond it. Therefore, in addition to simply making for a better life, and here I make a fun little jump over to the philosophy of Big Fish and its ilk, interacting and connecting with people will allow you to retain life beyond death. This is what makes you matter. Now, when I look at the question, I remember the overused statement, "You can't take it with you," continuously applied to material possession. I'm pretty stubborn when it comes to statements like that, and I contend that you most certainly can take it with you. The key lies in exactly what you are taking . . . I'm bringing relationships, myself.

Horribly irrelevant side note that I really shouldn't be indulging in: I always wondered, if heaven is so grand, what exactly do I care if I haven't gone that extra mile and put forth the effort to receive bucketloads of "crowns" when I get there? I mean, do I really care that you've got 1300 crowns to my 3 because you spent all your time doing Longview Blitz and evangelizing people who have just seen The Passion while I was in bed? I think not . . . I mean, how many crowns can you wear at once, for goodness sake? I don't know about you, but I have no more than a single head on my shoulders. And who really wants a crown, anyway? I mean, sure, it would be kind of cool, but . . . you're in heaven . . . where does the extra-crown-coolness-factor fit in with all that?! You don't need a crown unless it's, like, your little water park bracelet thing that lets you ride the rides . . . but that doesn't even make any sense, so forget I mentioned that.

What I'm leading to is this: What if these treasures you're storing up for yourself are directly related to the relationships you are building here on earth . . . After all, think of any work that you know of anyone doing for God, ever . . . What, of that, does not involve some degree of networking, often on a massive scale? What better way to get the good times going in heaven than if you fit right in with everyone there? As the Jewish mother says brightly, "You'll have a basis." Anyway, whatever. Time to move on.

So, clearly, relationships are, in the end, really vitally, inescapably important here, but I'd like to spend just a second or two on the question of culture because I have a bit of experience here. I can say, from that experience, that one can most definitely make friends in spite of, and/or around and through, culture differences, but those differences will always be there for the friendship to work around and to work through and to work with . . . the question must be taken and asked again with each particular friendship: Is this one strong and versatile enough to withstand that pressure? And, regardless of the answer, one must continue to try, for this, if it is not where *it* is at, is at least where *it* begins. Ummm . . . Make of that what you will . . .

Posted by Jared at 04:15 AM | TrackBack

April 27, 2004

Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon & The War Obsession

"The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

"They" by Siegfried Sassoon

The Bishop tells us: "When the boys come back
"They will not be the same; for they'll have fought
"In a just cause: they lead the last attack
"On Anti-Christ; their comrades' blood has bought
"New right to breed an honourable race,
"They have challenged Death and dared him face to face."

"We're none of us the same!" the boys reply.
"For George lost both his legs; and Bill's stone blind;
"Poor Jim's shot through the lungs and like to die;
"And Bert's gone syphilitic: you'll not find
"A chap who's served that hasn't found some change."
And the Bishop said: "The ways of God are strange!"

"The General" by Siegfried Sassoon

"Good-morning; good-morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He’s a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The reading for this day was lumped under the general heading "Voices from World War I," and we actually read works by four different poets (the other two being Ivor Gurney and, of course, Wilfred Owen). Of the four, Brooke and Owen died in the war (Brooke in 1915, Owen in 1918). Brooke died of dysentery and blood poisoning on board a troopship en route to Gallipoli. Owen died in the fighting a week before the war ended. Sassoon got sniped in the chest in mid-1917, but survived and was sent back to England. At that time, he made public a statement he had sent to his commanding officer:

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

He was diagnosed with shell shock and bundled off to a hospital in Edinburgh where he actually met Wilfred Owen. The two became good friends while they were there, and Sassoon had a great influence on Owen's poetry. Owen returned to the front in late 1917, and Sassoon returned in 1918. Sassoon was wounded again and returned to England for the remainder of the war. He didn't die until 1967.

So there's your background . . . now on to the poems. You can't help but note the violent contrast between Brooke and Sassoon . . . less a contrast resulting from differences between the men themselves, perhaps, and more because of what took place between 1914 (when the first was written) and 1916-17 (when the other two were written).

Brooke's "The Soldier" is proudly, even nauseatingly, patriotic. I can't help but think of Maturin here: ". . . patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile." Clearly we are dealing with a rather advanced case of Type-II patriotism here. When you know what lies ahead, ready to challenge this simple, innocent idealism as it marches into the meat grinder with a cocky grin and a twinkling eye, or perhaps with an honest, earnest expression of hope and a quiet knowledge that it is fighting for a just cause . . . Well, if you can think of that without wincing a bit, you're a right cold one and no mistake.

Note what England is made into in "The Soldier." It is not a country so much as an ideal, a cause, a collective consciousness of good and right, a loving mother producing faithful children . . . Ugh. And we, the English, (sic) carry England inside of us. No matter where we die, that spot becomes a little piece of England, and is improved thereby. And, of course, the heart is purified through dying a martyr's death for England's sake and rests in peace forever. Beautiful. It almost seems a mercy that he died thinking this.

Now, sit there for a second and think of two years of trenches and shelling and machine gun fire and mud and rats and disease and mustard gas and no man's land and barbed wire and unimaginable waste of lives . . . It's a wonder Sassoon could still write. I'd have been a babbling idiot (no comments regarding whether I already am or not, thank you).

So, look at "They." A Bishop, sitting safely at home, speaks authoritatively of a war he hasn't experienced. He promises that soldiers will not be the same when they come back home again. And he's right. Nobody is the same as they were. They're all mutilated . . . missing limbs, lacking senses, full of holes, crippled by disease, probably half-crazed . . . all different. So what does the Bishop say to this? "The ways of God are strange!" That'll turn your stomach . . . revoltingly callous and trite. It's not just that the poem's cynical . . . I can handle cynical. I am cynical, when it suits me. Ironic also . . . I love irony. But it is so very bitter.

We have the same issue in "The General," slightly comic in tone, perhaps, through some abortive attempts at levity, but still reeking chiefly of bitter irony. We have a General deigning to grace the troops with his presence just before he sends them on an idiotic and suicidal offensive. A couple of the soldiers think he's all right. Well, that won't save them from dying as a result of his poor tactics.

The Battle of Arras, by the way, which is referred to in the poem, was a major British assault that started on April 9th, 1917. It resulted in something like 160,000 casualties, and was considered (more or less) a victory for "our" side, as the Canadians managed to capture a very important strategic defensive position. 84,000 of the battle's casualties were British soldiers. Imagine if you left for the weekend and when you got back, everyone in Longview, plus 10,000 of their visiting relatives and friends, had died in a very violent and gory manner . . . use your imagination to walk through town for just a second and try to take that in. That would be just the British casualties.

In any case, it is fascinating, albeit sickening and more than a little disheartening, to watch the attitudes, worldviews, hopes, dreams, etc. of an entire generation hinge and shift around and through two short poems. There was a saying in Britain after World War I: "We went to war with Rupert Brooke, and came back with Siegfried Sassoon." Yeah. Yeah they did. I've gotten a double dose of WWI this semester in both Western Civ and American History, but looking at it that way is a bit different. A proper study of history seems almost to require supplementation from just a bit of the mind and heart of the common man, as expressed through the literature of the time. History draws the picture, literature colors it in.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

April 26, 2004

Oscar Wilde & The Hedonistic Obsession

While there was never any doubt that I'd be doing an entry on Oscar Wilde, I was briefly at a loss as to whether I ought to do The Importance of Being Earnest, (which we actually read), or The Picture of Dorian Gray, (which we merely watched). I finally settled on the latter because I think it has a lot more to do with who Wilde was as a person than Earnest does. However, I am at a slight disadvantage. I have never (yet) read The Picture of Dorian Gray. I'm getting there, but there are a lot of freaking books in the world.

Anyway, I don't feel quite right about diving directly into the movie without a few words from Wilde himself. The first item in my lovely Appendix (extended entry) is the Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's short, cracking good stuff, and you'll get a good idea of his philosophy from it.

To sum it up with the short short version, this is: "Art for art's sake." That's the key here. And now, on to the novel . . . err . . . movie.

In brief, (and I do mean brief . . . I hope), Dorian Gray is a gentleman living in London in the late 19th century. He is the very picture of unspoiled youth and innocence . . . So much so that his friend Basil Hallward, (an artist), is painting his portrait, and already more than half-believing that it will be his masterpiece. As Dorian poses for the portrait as it is completed, he makes the acquaintance of another of the artist's friends, Lord Henry Wotton. Lord Henry, from what little I’ve read, is the classic Wilde character: indolent, casual, and given to constant, penetrating, and quietly hilarious observations on the world around him. I think I can more or less sum this guy up with two of his quotes:

"If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world except get up early, take exercise or be respectable."

"There's only one way to get rid of temptation, and that's to yield to it."

He lounges in the studio and languidly touts his life philosophy of living for pleasure and only for pleasure. Basil completes the picture and it is indeed a masterpiece . . . the sight of himself preserved forever at the peak of perfection, and the power of Lord Henry's words move Dorian to wish that he could remain forever as he is, and that the portrait should age instead. *camera zooms in significantly on an Egyptian deity, a cat goddess, which sits imperiously on a nearby table, stoically observing the proceedings*

Of course, the wish is granted, and Dorian discovers this as he gets to know Lord Henry better and begins to live out the life philosophy that Lord Henry is always talking about (more on that in a moment). His excesses lead him deeper and deeper into the worst kind of vice and sin imaginable (for the most part this is only vaguely hinted at in the movie through dim shots of the locales he frequents and the persistent, general rumors that float around). Eventually his past comes back to haunt him. The painting is stored away where no one can see it, of course, and it is aged and disfigured past all recognition. One man in particular nearly succeeds in killing him to avenge a female relative that Dorian has . . . wronged.

The key scene, reminiscent of Dr. Faustus, comes when Basil discovers the truth and begs Dorian to repent and pray for forgiveness. Dorian doesn't think this is possible, and he ends up killing Basil. Finally, at the end, Dorian decides that he must destroy the painting, but in stabbing it, he kills himself. The painting suddenly looks as it did originally, and the hideous appearance is transferred to the Dorian's dead body.

You should know by now that I absolutely detest summarizing . . . that may or may not be why I'm so bad at it, but the point is that I hate it. However, I can't exactly upload the movie, or assume that everyone has seen it, or paste in a script, or . . . andthing like that, so I do what I can. That's the gist. Now, what does the movie mean? What's the point?

Personally, I think it is best examined as a parallel to the life of Wilde himself. With this in mind, I include two more things in the Appendix below. One is an excerpt from De Profundis, which will require a bit of explanation, I suppose. In 1895, not long after the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years hard labor. See, he was having this affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a "handsome young poet" who happened to be the son of the marquis of Queensbury. So Wilde went up the river, Douglas did not.

In prison he was allowed one sheet of paper at a time to write letters on, and De Profundis is the letter he wrote to his . . . ummm . . . to Douglas. I think it is fairly easy to see how his life more or less parallels Dorian's from what he says of it here. In any case, it is an interesting read.

So, if you took the time to read it (and it takes a little time, I confess), you can see, at least, what he thinks happened to his life. He (quite modestly) claims to have been the king of his world, more or less, if not the world (symbolically speaking), and talks of "eternal youth" and so forth . . . And then look where he goes. He starts living entirely for pleasure . . . but not the usual kind of pleasure necessarily. He plunges into the depths, perversity is mentioned, as is desire.

He has totally pulled a Dorian, as it were. And society doesn't notice, apparently, because he is still hailed far and wide . . . he's still got it all. Earneast is a huge success when it comes out, but as soon as everything hit the fan it dropped out of production for several years.

After Wilde was released from prison he, of course, left England (there's no way he could have stayed) and lived out the very short remainder of his life (three years . . . prison completely ruined his health) mooching off of friends in France under an assumed name.

"E Tenebris," the other item I have included, was written 14 years before all this, and it is . . . a little strange. I wonder what he was thinking when he wrote it and what happened to that thought process once it was written. He's grasping at something here, but did he miss? It almost sounds like Cowper's The Castaway . . . but for the ending.

(Side note: I hurt for that guy. I really do. I get depressed whenever I think about him.)

Basically, here's the big question . . . I read (or watch . . . whatever, shut up) Dorian Gray and Earnest which are, obviously, madly different, and I read De Profundis and it seems like Wilde got it . . . and then he didn't. And I read about his life and what he did with it, and I just have one question. What was this guy's deal?! He was a freakin' genius and he chucked it for . . . *gags*

Did he ever really get it, in the end? A verse I keep thinking up in connection with all this (I think it may have cropped up somewhere in all the compulsive reading I've been doing on the subject): "For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?" You almost think he has in De Profundis but there's this strange lack . . . he talks as if he will be his own salvation, as if he knows he was off, but he's got it figured out now, and all he's got to do is kill the old self and take in all the experience that he has attained from the bad times, becoming something new.

Somehow, it sounds suspiciously like Dorian's scheme to stab his portrait . . . Perhaps the cause of Wilde's death, coming so close on the heels of his release from prison, was more poetic than the rational mind might at first be led to believe . . .



Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art's aim.

The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.

The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.

Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The nineteenth century dislike of Realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of Romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.

The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium. No artist desires to prove anything. Even things that are true can be proved.

No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything.

Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.

Vice and virtue are to the artist materials for an art.

From the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician. From the point of view of feeling, the actor's craft is the type.

All art is at once surface and symbol.

Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.

Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.

Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.

When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself. We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.

All art is quite useless.

From De Profundis

I must say to myself that neither you nor your father, multiplied a thousand times over, could possibly have ruined a man like me, that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to do so. I am trying to do so, though you may not think it at the present moment. If I have brought this pitiless indictment against you, think what an indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as what you did to me was, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.

The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring. I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art. I altered the minds of men and the colors of things. There was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder. I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterization. Drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty. To truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me. I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.

Along with these things, I had things that were different. I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensations. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be Lord over myself. I was no longer the Captain of my Soul, and did not know it. I allowed you to dominate me, and your father to frighten me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute Humility. Just as there is only one thing for you, absolute Humility also. You had better come down into the dust and learn it beside me.

I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering. Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said -

'Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark
And has the nature of infinity.'

But while there were times when I rejoiced in the idea that my sufferings were to be endless, I could not bear them to be without meaning. Now I find hidden somewhere away in my nature something that tells me that nothing in the whole world is meaningless, and suffering least of all. That something hidden away in my nature, like a treasure in a field, is Humility.

It is the last thing left in me, and the best: the ultimate discovery at which I have arrived, the starting-point for a fresh development. It has come to me right out of myself, so I know that it has come at the proper time. It could not have come before, nor later. Had any one told me of it, I would have rejected it. Had it been brought to me, I would have refused it. As I found it, I want to keep it. I must do so. It is the one thing that has in it the elements of life, of a new life, Vita Nuova for me. Of all things it is the strangest. One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things that one knows that one possesses it.

I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say quite simply, and without affectation that the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me: for that phrase would savour of too great bitterness towards myself. I would sooner say, or hear it said of me, that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity's sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.

What is said, however, by myself or by others, matters little. The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realized is right.

"E Tenebris"

Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach Thy hand,

For I am drowning in a stormier sea

Than Simon on Thy lake of Galilee:

The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,

My heart is as some famine-murdered land

Whence all good things have perished utterly,

And well I know my soul in Hell must lie

If I this night before God's throne should stand.

'He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,

Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name

From morn to noon on Carmel's smitten height.'

Nay, peace, I shall behold, before the night,

The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,

The wounded hands, the weary human face.

Posted by Jared at 06:28 AM | TrackBack

April 24, 2004

"There was more foolery yet, if I could remember it"

(Quoth Casca, Act I, Sc. 2)

The Shadow Council Players present "Julius Caesar":

Sharptiano- Julius Caesar, Titinius, Lucillius, Strato, Ghost of Caesar, Second Citizen, Second Soldier, etc.
Ardith- Octavius Caesar, Calpurnia, Cinna, Soothsayer, Claudio, etc.
Wilson- Mark Antony, Casca, Flavius, Cinna the Poet, etc.
Gallagher- Marcus Brutus, Carpenter
Myself- Caius Cassius, Murellus, Publius, Clitus, Fourth Citizen, etc.
Scholl- Trebonius, Lepidus, Popillius, Artemidorus, Pindarus, Messala, Cobbler, Servant, Third Citizen, Third Soldier, etc.
Randy- Lucius, Metellus Cimber, Caius Ligarius, Cicero, Varrus, Volumnius, First Citizen, First Soldier, etc.
Anna- Portia, Decius Brutus, Cato, Dardanius, Poet, Messenger, etc.

Well, as anyone can probably tell from the cast listing, there are a few more speaking parts than usual in this one. If I forgot any roles that anyone played, or mixed up any roles, I'm sorry . . . It was a lot to keep track of.

So, I know that Julius Caesar is a good play . . . of course . . . but I didn't expect to get quite that . . . level of enjoyment out of it. I don't know if it was sleep deprivation or what, but . . . Wow.

Gallagher, it was a pleasure to . . . ummm . . . yell at you and stuff. We'll have to try that again sometime . . . or something. Oh yeah, and one more thing: Durst not!

Anyway, kudos to Wilson for that magnificent rendition of Antony's famous speech . . . that was fun. And the jumping between Casca and Antony a few times was quite impressive. In fact, way to be versatile, everyone.

Oh, yes, and my apologies to everyone as well. Leaving Wilson (as Antony), Scholl (as Lepidus), and Ardith (as Almighty Caesar) in charge of the Roman Empire at the end there . . . That was clearly poor planning on my part.

*considers historical ramifications*


Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

April 20, 2004

Algernon Charles Swinburne & The Pagan Obsession

"Hymn to Proserpine (After the Proclamation in Rome of the Christian Faith)"

Vicisti, Galilaee

I have lived long enough, having seen one thing, that love hath an end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
Thou art more than the day or the morrow, the seasons that laugh or that weep;
For these give joy and sorrow; but thou, Proserpina, sleep.
Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harpstring of gold,
A bitter god to follow, a beautiful god to behold?
I am sick of singing: the bays burn deep and chafe: I am fain
To rest a little from praise and grievous pleasure and pain.
For the gods we know not of, who give us our daily breath,
We know they are cruel as love or life, and lovely as death.

O gods dethroned and deceased, cast forth, wiped out in a day
From your wrath is the world released, redeemed from your chains, men say.
New gods are crowned in the city; their flowers have broken your rods;
They are merciful, clothed with pity, the young compassionate gods.
But for me their new device is barren, the days are bare;
Things long past over suffice, and men forgotten that were.
Time and the gods are at strife; ye dwell in the midst thereof,
Draining a little life from the barren breasts of love.
I say to you, cease, take rest; yea, I say to you all, be at peace,
Till the bitter milk of her breast and the barren bosom shall cease.
Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean? but these thou shalt not take,
The laurel, the palms and the paean, the breasts of the nymphs in the brake;
Breasts more soft than a dove's, that tremble with tenderer breath;
And all the wings of the Loves, and all the joy before death;
All the feet of the hours that sound as a single lyre,
Dropped and deep in the flowers, with strings that flicker like fire.
More than these wilt thou give, things fairer than all these things?
Nay, for a little we live, and life hath mutable wings.
A little while and we die; shall life not thrive as it may?
For no man under the sky lives twice, outliving his day.
And grief is a grievous thing, and a man hath enough of his tears:
Why should he labour, and bring fresh grief to blacken his years?

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;
We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.
Laurel is green for a season, and love is sweet for a day;
But love grows bitter with treason, and laurel outlives not May.
Sleep, shall we sleep after all? for the world is not sweet in the end;
For the old faiths loosen and fall, the new years ruin and rend.
Fate is a sea without shore, and the soul is a rock that abides;
But her ears are vexed with the roar and her face with the foam of the tides.
O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods!
O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted gods!
Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,
I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.

All delicate days and pleasant, all spirits and sorrows are cast
Far out with the foam of the present that sweeps to the surf of the past:
Where beyond the extreme sea-wall, and between the remote sea-gates,
Waste water washes, and tall ships founder, and deep death waits:
Where, mighty with deepening sides, clad about with the seas as with wings,
And impelled of invisible tides, and fulfilled of unspeakable things,
White-eyed and poisonous-finned, shark-toothed and serpentine-curled,
Rolls, under the whitening wind of the future, the wave of the world.
The depths stand naked in sunder behind it, the storms flee away;
In the hollow before it the thunder is taken and snared as a prey;
In its sides is the north-wind bound; and its salt is of all men's tears;
With light of ruin, and sound of changes, and pulse of years:
With travail of day after day, and with trouble of hour upon hour;
And bitter as blood is the spray; and the crests are as fangs that devour:
And its vapour and storm of its steam as the sighing of spirits to be;
And its noise as the noise in a dream; and its depth as the roots of the sea:
And the height of its heads as the height of the utmost stars of the air:
And the ends of the earth at the might thereof tremble, and time is made bare.
Will ye bridle the deep sea with reins, will ye chasten the high sea with rods?
Will ye take her to chain her with chains, who is older than all ye gods?
All ye as a wind shall go by, as a fire shall ye pass and be past;
Ye are gods, and behold, ye shall die, and the waves be upon you at last.
In the darkness of time, in the deeps of the years, in the changes of things,
Ye shall sleep as a slain man sleeps, and the world shall forget you for kings.
Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,
Though these that were gods are dead, and thou being dead art a god,
Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,
Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.

Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;
Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.
Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, say these.
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,
Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,
And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.
For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,
Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,
White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,
Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.
For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she
Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.
And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,
And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.

Ye are fallen, our lords, by what token? we wist that ye should not fall.
Ye were all so fair that are broken; and one more fair than ye all.
But I turn to her still, having seen she shall surely abide in the end;
Goddess and maiden and queen, be near me now and befriend.
O daughter of earth, of my mother, her crown and blossom of birth,
I am also, I also, thy brother; I go as I came unto earth.
In the night where thine eyes are as moons are in heaven, the night where thou art,
Where the silence is more than all tunes, where sleep overflows from the heart,
Where the poppies are sweet as the rose in our world, and the red rose is white,
And the wind falls faint as it blows with the fume of the flowers of the night,
And the murmur of spirits that sleep in the shadow of gods from afar
Grows dim in thine ears and deep as the deep dim soul of a star,
In the sweet low light of thy face, under heavens untrod by the sun,
Let my soul with their souls find place, and forget what is done and undone.
Thou art more than the gods who number the days of our temporal breath;
For these give labour and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death.
Therefore now at thy feet I abide for a season in silence. I know
I shall die as my fathers died, and sleep as they sleep; even so.
For the glass of the years is brittle wherein we gaze for a span;
A little soul for a little bears up this corpse which is man.
So long I endure, no longer; and laugh not again, neither weep.
For there is no god found stronger than death; and death is a sleep.

Before I even get started, I must briefly digress. Anyone named Algernon Charles Swinburne is fated to write poetry. That name is too good to waste on anything else (except, perhaps, the Church . . . if you lacked the necessary talent . . . which you wouldn't, with a name like that). Anyway . . .

Are we sensing a little hostility here? Are we sensing a little well-justified hostility here? Before we go any further, I should explain something. I can't analyze this poem from a Christian perspective, at all (Meaning: I can't put the traditional "positive Christian spin" on it.) If I tried to analyze this by slanting a Christian lesson into it through the author . . . that would be wrong. It's not there, people. There's no hidden message. Swinburne isn't just taking on a persona here, this is what he thinks. Moving forward . . .

My lovely footnotes tell me that the Latin words you see just under the title ("Vicisti, Galilaee") were spoken by Julian the Apostate in 363, as he was dying. He had attempted to revive paganism, (Christianity having been officially made permissible in 313), and had not succeeded. Obviously, he's a little bitter about this. The words, as you can probably tell, mean "Thou hast conquered, O Galilean."

The speaker in this poem is a Roman patrician and poet who, like Julian, prefers the pagan gods. Proserpine, of course, is known in Greek mythology as Persephone. You can read her story here if you need to refresh your memory.

In brief, the poem proceeds thusly: The speaker alternates chiefly between praises for Proserpine and curses (or perhaps they are closer to threats . . . or merely observations?) for "the Galilean." He compares his gods with the new one in various ways and finds the new one wanting. He compares his goddess with the new one's mother, and finds her wanting. He talks about how short life is, and the sweet release of death. And then, after that wonderful section about the ocean of change, he assures himself that this new religion won't really last, in the end. "Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead."

Right. When I start quoting in my summary . . . Well, he isn't telling a story here, he's making a point that is already well summarized and perfectly stated by him. You need to read the poem for yourself. Go do that, and then come back.

The brief biography I read about Swinburne links him with Shelley in terms of ideas and themes. Ummm . . . Yeah. Definitely. (See my entry on Shelley from the last round of English Journals.) He has taken the principles of Ecclesiastes, as communicated by Percy Shelley, and applied them not only to the things of this world, but to the gods themselves. And he's got a point . . . historical precedent is on his side. Dominant religions may have a longer average lifespan than dynasties, but which of them has ever remained dominant anywhere near forever (if there is such a concept)?

The speaker loved the gods that he served, and he liked their style. He finds this whole compassion, mercy, and pity game to be more than a little pathetic, compared to what he had before. "Wilt thou yet take all, Galilean?"

So, the speaker reminds us that we aren't here for very long. Life is short, enjoyment of life is key. "A little while and then we die; shall life not thrive as it may?" Christianity, from that perspective, cannot even pretend to compete with the old religion. It is all about being wholly focused on what comes next and so encouraging its followers to ignore, or even deprive themselves of, the finer and more beautiful things in this life . . . That's a real bummer when laid next to the earthly splendor and majesty and nobility and moral abandon and riotous fun of Rome's pagan beliefs. ". . . the world has grown gray from thy breath."

Next, he carries his thought processes out to their logical conclusion. He may not last for long, but neither will this new religious craze. As his gods cast down those who came before, and were in their turn cast down, so will the new god someday be usurped. Nothing lasts, save one thing. And that's where the last laugh will belong to Rome and her gods. For death is the all-powerful god that cannot be beaten . . . and death is the only god(dess) he has left to serve (in the form of Proserpine). "Though these that were gods are dead, and thou being dead art a god . . . there is no god found stronger than death."

The Galilean may have won for a season, but death will be back in the end. By then, of course, Proserpine (to whom he has remained faithful) will have brought the speaker unto herself, into blessed sleep. And he takes his satisfaction and comfort from the forthcoming oblivion. "Thou art more than the gods who number the days of our temporal breath; For these give labor and slumber; but thou, Proserpina, death . . . and death is a sleep."

I did that very badly, I know, because the poem speaks so beautifully for itself, but it would be redundant simply to quote key sections of it. If you didn't see this stuff already, hopefully I've pointed you in the proper direction. Now, on to the point.

The deep, dark secret of life is this: Not that it is meaningless, or perhaps even that our gods are not there . . . but that they are enslaved to death and change just as surely as we are. For the unbeliever who has just had his religion supplanted, there can be no greater truth than that. Nothing is, or ever could be more certain. This is Ecclesiastes with God cut out, and only god left behind.

"Time and the gods are at strife; ye dwell in the midst thereof, Draining a little life from the barren breasts of love. I say to you cease, take rest; yea, I say to you all, be at peace, Till the bitter milk of her breast and the barren bosom shall cease."

Those are your instructions. Much joy may they bring you. Meanwhile, it's time for me to be a Christian again.

You know when I read this poem, I can't help but think of poor old Salieri, patron saint of mediocrity. We're in a similar fix, he and I. However, it is late, so I'll leave you with this. First, if you haven't seen Amadeus, don't bother trying to figure out what I'm thinking. Second, the rough parallel is this: If I were Salieri, and Swinburne were Mozart, what would I be thinking right now, more or less, about serving God with the gifts you have and the distribution of artistic talent?

What disturbs me the most about this poem, (aside from the fact that I really like it), is that I think Swinburne sees matters far more clearly than a lot of Christians do . . . he's just got things backwards. Many Christians believe without seeing (often without looking, either, but that's another issue). Swinburne (and/or the speaker in the poem) sees without believing. He's spotted the angles, knows what it all means, and has the Galilean’s “game” figured out; he's just not buying any of it. Now that's depressing.

Posted by Jared at 02:07 AM | TrackBack

April 18, 2004

If Only I Had an Inner Tube

I have been reading a bit of Virginia Woolf this evening. "What on earth could prompt you to such a foolish action?" Well, that's a good question, sorta. It was assigned for English Lit II.

Quite a depressing thing, really. Just before I started reading, I couldn't prevent myself from flipping forward through the remainder of the Norton Anthology to see what lay ahead . . . Names come popping out at me: James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, Samuel Beckett. None of them are on the syllabus, we haven't time for them, and that makes me a little sad. I hardly dare to . . . but I do anyway . . . turn backwards and look again at who we skipped over on our way here: Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling.

Oh, look. I'm shedding a tear.

Buck up, old chap. Time to read Woolf. So I do, starting with a brief biography . . . just a few key details about her life and times and so forth.

Oh, my.

Oh, my.

So that would be where that whole Orlando thing came from, then. Special. Well, let's see what she has to say for herself.

Ah, wonderful. My mind is already in the midst of its usual roiling turmoil (I'm not agitated, but there's so much to think about . . . random English Lit reading assignments are the least of my worries right now. In fact, they aren't a worry at all. They're rather fun. Clearly I should have more assignments like this. More classes like this. There isn't nearly enough required concentrated reading going on. Far too many random worksheets floating around. Anyway, I've never been the most linear thinker around, exactly. Nasty tendency to hijack my own trains, and I often wonder if I subconsciously set up my room in such a way that I could be constantly distracted by "shiny objects." But I digress . . .) and I have no idea now where I was going to end the pre-parentheses sentence anyway, so whether I digress or not is no longer important. Better jump to a new paragraph.

Oh, yes. In the midst of all the pleasant buzzing of my brain, I may or may not be able to focus on traditional prose or poetic writing at any given time. The question is simply this: How am I supposed to focus when the author's mind was apparently doing just what mine is whilst she wrote? But it's so much fun.

I feel like . . . well, I feel like there's a dense pea-souper and not much else between my ears right now (no comments from the Peanut Gallery . . . or the rest of the SC, either, please), but nevermind that. I feel like I'm lazily listening to myself think, or perhaps listening to a few of my friends converse in the special way they have . . . And it's really quite pleasant. I'd describe the sensation further for you, but I'd like to let the piece speak for itself.

The Mark on the Wall

It's quite short and it would be a reasonably pleasant read even if it did nothing but meander aimlessly, starting from nowhere and nothing and leading to the same destination . . . But don't be deceived! I hope that you, like me, will get at least a small chuckle out of the last line.

Have a little fun. If Literature were a water park, this would be its lazy river.

Or . . . ummm . . . something . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

April 17, 2004

A Consummate Spouse . . . Yeah, good luck with that!

The Shadow Council Players present "An Ideal Husband":

Martinez- Sir Robert Chiltern, Harold
Myself- Lord Goring
Ardith- Mabel Chiltern, Mrs. Cheveley, Lady Basildon
Anna- Lady Chiltern
Gallagher- Lord Caversham, Mrs. Marchmont, Lady Markby
Scholl- Phipps, James, Mason
Randy- Vicomte de Nanjac
Moore- Mr. Montford
Sharon- Lady Markby
Sharptiano- Mason

So . . . Yes. This is quite a fun play, like nearly everything by Oscar Wilde, but it isn't, of course, quite as good as "Earnest." Nevertheless, he balances it out nicely by making the characters less shallow (at least a little). But then, triviality was kind of the point of the other one. However, I digress . . .

I ought to mention that when I picked this play, I rather thought there'd be a smaller crew than usual, and there rather wasn't. We were at least up to full size. So, sorry to everyone who only got one minor (or even very minor) role. Hmmm . . . That sounds really funny when put that way, but whatever. Anyway, we'll see what we can do next week.

I suppose I really ought to chronicle Anna's delivery of the following speech (despite the fact that she sounded as if wild horses were dragging it out of her by main force):

"A man's life is of more value than a woman's. It has larger issues, wider scope, greater ambitions. Our lives revolve in curves of emotions. It is upon lines of intellect that a man's life progresses."

Actually, the following exchange was my personal favorite:

Caversham: What I say is that marriage is a matter for common sense.

Goring: But women who have common sense are so curiously plain, father, aren't they? Of course I only speak from hearsay.

Caversham: No woman, plain or pretty, has any common sense at all, sir. Common sense is the privilege of our sex.

Goring: Quite so. And we men are so self-sacrificing that we never use it, do we, father?

Caversham: I use it, sir. I use nothing else.

Goring: So my mother tells me.

Caversham: It is the secret of your mother's happiness.

Followed closely by this one:

Mrs. Cheveley: The strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women . . . merely adored.

Sir Robert: You think science cannot grapple with the problem of women?

Mrs. Cheveley: Science can never grapple with the irrational. That is why it has no future before it, in this world.

Sir Robert: And women represent the irrational.

Mrs. Cheveley: Well-dressed women do.

*sniggers* Oh, yes . . . Another thing: Ardith seemed quite disturbed at first by the role-swapping that was so prevalent among her characters in Act I. Really, Ardith . . . The rest of us have been doing this for weeks! Surely you can't have forgotten already that Gallagher had sword fights with himself twice only last Friday?

Be that as it may, I should certainly register the fact that I am quite disturbed by her proficiency with jumping at a moment's notice from the sweet, silly Mabel Chiltern to the ruthless, chiseling Mrs. Cheveley. Yikes. It occurs to me that . . . *stops to think* . . . Ummm . . . That there really isn't anywhere good I can go in further analyzing this state of affairs.

Good work, everyone. And won't next week be a trip? *cackles gleefully* Until then . . . *resumes normal blogging activities*

Posted by Jared at 02:41 PM | TrackBack

April 13, 2004

"If all the year were playing holidays . . ."

The Shadow Council Players present "Henry IV, Part One":

Martinez- King Henry the Fourth, Gadshill, Messenger, Carrier, Bardolph, Servant
Myself- Hal Prince of Wales, Earl of Worcester, Ostler
Wilson- Hotspur, Prince John, Peto, Sheriff
Gallagher- Sir John Falstaff, Sir Walter Blunt, Earl of Douglas, Lady Mortimer
Ardith- Owen Glendower, Sir Richard Vernon, Archbishop of York, Poins, Second Carrier
Anna- Earl of Westmoreland, Earl of Worcester, Sir Michael, Lady Percy, Mistress Quickly, First Carrier, Traveler, Messenger
Scholl- Earl of Northumberland, Bardolph, Chamberlain
Moore- Earl of Westmoreland, Poins
Sharon- Earl of Worcester
Ziggy- Francis
Spiff- Earl of March

This is the only Shakespeare play that I've had to do which I've never read before. And it was quite enjoyable, I must say. If only all of his histories were this . . . ummm . . . "not dry." We had excellent good fun and marvelous performing all around. I simply must mention Ardith's Archbishop . . . because that was funny. She crosses herself as she walks onstage . . . and it went downhill from there. I'm pretty sure a female Archbishop is, like, flaming heresy . . .

Oh, yes. And through poor casting on my part, and a general lack of people present to step in anyway, Gallagher had a swordfight with himself. Twice. So ridiculous . . . But by far the most enjoyable scenes were the robbery and the looooooooooong pub scene (Act II, scenes 2 and 4), of course. Falstaff is so great. But you knew that.

Closing thought: "Hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters!" -Falstaff, to Prince Hal

Posted by Jared at 10:45 AM | TrackBack

April 02, 2004

Wheeler's Conference Epic

Right. So I'm still blogging, obviously. Congratulations. You're all frigging geniuses. Except for those of you that clearly aren't. Clearly, Mr. Fry has me pegged. I am completely addicted to publishing myself on a regular basis. In a brief aside before we move on, I hope you all played The Worm Game that was linked in that last post of mine.

I would also like to note an incident that occured in English Lit II on Wednesday. Dr. Watson was sitting in Mr. Payton's office, yakking about Conference stuff, when the bell rang for class. I decided to hang about the door so I could just happen to run into him when he came out a few seconds later. He proceeded to sign me up for a time to do volunteer work on Friday, and then I asked him if he would be attending class. He would.

I followed him down to his office, and informed that the day's topic of discussion was Joseph Conrad when he asked. Then we went to class. Power Point wasn't working, he was having a little trouble pronouncing certain words, and he had brought the wrong textbook. He sent someone to get the right one, and looked out at the rest of us.

Dr. Watson: After the Conference this weekend, I'll get my life back, and then things will be better.

Myself (Yeah, like I'm gonna let that go by . . .): *respectfully raises hand*

Dr. Watson: Yes, sir?

Myself (in an eager and curious tone): When do we get our lives back?

Anyway, I wanted to record that because opportunities to even attempt something that resembles a *zing* don't surface around Dr. Watson on anything like a regular basis.

And now it's time to talk about . . .

The 7th Annual C. S. Lewis and the Inklings Conference

I had a lot of fun. This was an amazing experience, and I am very bitter that we don't get this kind of thing more often. I essentially got to spend an entire day talking shop with several dozen hardcore and intelligent Inklings nerds, (as opposed to the average garden-variety one finds wandering at large amongst the general student body), not to mention scholars. It was a long day, yes. I had to wake up at 6:30 to get ready to attend. And I had to get myself all dressed up and wear a tie, which I am not particularly fond of doing (for various reasons . . . most of them attached to laziness and an aversion to discomfort). But I really didn't care about all that.

I met Scholl coming out of SAGA and sent him off to put on something that wasn't shorts and sandals before meeting Ardith inside the Education building. In due time, Anna came along, and Scholl eventually returned. Wilson showed up after the opening general session, and we were all there for the entirety of the day.

I shall now attempt to record the portion of the conference that I attended as briefly as possible.

8:00- Dr. Woodring addresses everyone together, giving a 15-minute devotion on the subject of "Who is Jesus?" He quoted both Dorothy Sayers and C. S. Lewis extensively. He clearly started off on the right foot . . . with a jab at the SC members present. "I'll go ahead and start now, and everyone else can come in late and sit down. I'll just feel like it's another one of my classes . . . Yeah, I see some of the same people, in fact." *pointed look at us* You think I just have some kind of persecution complex? His first response upon seeing me walk into the building ten minutes before was not a pleasant "good morning" but a bitterly humorous expression of amazement that I had managed to get up and look so awake when I slept through so many of his Bib Lit classes last semester.

8:15- Bruce Edwards of Bowling Green State University, our keynote speaker, talked for about an hour on "Re-enchanting the Christian Imagination: C. S. Lewis and the Inklings." I quite enjoyed his talk. He was a good speaker, and his address was essentially a quick recap of the most important themes we covered in last semester's Inklings class. He used a lot of the same quotes that Dr. Woodring would read regularly, and generally discussed things like the Inklings' aversion to allegory and preference for "Religious Myth," as well as their vanguard action (as it were) in bringing fantasy and science-fiction out into the light of respectability amongst mainstream Christians.

9:25- Four sessions to choose from . . . AGH! There will be 12 papers presented during the next hour and twenty minutes, and I can only hear three of them. Scholl and I choose Section D. Anna, Ardith and Wilson decide to go attend Section C (which looked, and apparently was, quite excellent . . . perhaps one of them will post on the stuff they got to hear that I missed).

-Paper #1: Pam Jordan of Taylor University (specialty, Victorian Lit) presented "Reflections on Hamlet from the Inklings." Very interesting, for the most part. She actually looked at criticism written by Lewis, Williams, MacDonald, and Chesterton . . . Not all of them are Inklings, but they all have legitimate business being there. Her paper was a bit ambitious . . . clearly she could have written as much as she had just from the criticism of one of those authors. As it was, hers was the longest paper in the session, and she said she had cut a number of chunks out of it. In any case, it was interesting to note where the four men agreed and disagreed. All of them were very similair in their ideas, especially concerning the question of Hamlet's hesitation, (they all seemed to agree with the theory that Hamlet does not, in fact, hesitate at all, but acts when he needs to, and just as he wants to), but each had quite unique and fascinating reasons to back up those ideas.

Paper #2- E. B. Hawkins of Lamar State University (specialty, Old and Middle English Lit) presented "What About the Heroes? -- Tolkien's Answer." This was a very fun paper, providing an in-depth examination of how Tolkien treats the subjects of immortality and an afterlife for the various species in Middle Earth . . . especially the manner in which he rewards the main heroes of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. She noted that, while there is some sort of hope of an afterlife implied indirectly, Tolkien absolutely refused to spell out the answer to those questions. Instead, he grants extended lifespans and other rewards to his main characters as more tangible positive benefits for their heroic actions . . . but they all still die. I was somewhat amused in the discussion afterwards when it became quite evident that Dr. Hawkins was rather bitter about the lack of a confirmed happily-ever-after ending to the trilogy. She obviously had that passion for the work that I am always pleased to discover in a new acquaintance.

Paper #3- Sheba Kulothungan of Southwestern Assemblies of God University (specialty, Early American Lit) presented "Allegory and Symbolism in Lewis' Poems: His Definitions, His Display, His Dynamism." In terms of the overall balance between presentation, choice of topic, and excellent analysis, this was the most enjoyable paper I heard today. Dr. Kulothungan contrasted Lewis' poetry with the poetry of the American Puritan writers and of Emily Dickinson. She noted particularly that both Lewis and the Puritans wrote about "mere" Christianity, but she was curious to discover what precisely Lewis was doing that made his writing so much more profound, accessible, and alive than the writings of the Puritans. She referred to the Puritans as "scaling the mountain of an unknown God with the pitons of symbolism and allegory." Lewis, on the other hand, "scaled the mountain of symbolism and allegory using the pitons of the truths about God that he recognized intrinsically." She drew attention to the fact that, while the Puritans regarded the spiritual realm as incorporeal and ethereal in comparison to the solid, concrete "real world," Lewis saw the "real world" as merely a dim, dirty shadow of the reality of the spiritual world. Very cool stuff, and I just can't get enough of it . . . There was a lot of other cool stuff, as well, but I don't remember it in such detail. Scholl was exceptionally pleased when Dr. Kulothungan, as he put it, ripped into Emily Dickinson, but I digress.

10:45- Break time . . . We all gather in the hallway to confer and generally agree that this is really awesome. And we eat some really really delicious blueberry muffins. Dr. Watson comes along and drops a task on us (chiefly Scholl) as volunteers. Namely, to track down pertinent information on a number of local tourist attractions and put it together on one piece of paper to be distributed. We all accompany him upstairs to the labs (there being only ten minutes of break left) and grab what we can. Wilson, Ardith, and Anna trickle off to Section B, while I go to Section C, saving a seat for Scholl as he toddles off to repackage the information we have accumulated. He fails to show up, but Ardith suddenly wanders in, so I give her his seat.

Paper #4- Melanie Hix of Oklahoma City University (Graduate Student) presents "Consumption of the Inner Spirit: Gagool and Tolkien's Gollum." I was very interested in this paper for two reasons. First, King Solomon's Mines is one of my favorite books of all time and Gagool's death is one of the more memorable scenes. Second, I was interested in hearing a paper that was doing basically the same thing that I was doing. That is, comparing something from Tolkien's work to something from another author's and suggesting that he might have drawn from that source in the process of creating his own work. If you've ever read King Solomon's Mines you can start drawing half a dozen parallels right away, and if not then I won't be able to clarify things by elaborating further. Good paper, though.

Paper #5- Joe Cristopher of Tarelton State University (some variety of Doctor or another) presents "A Four-fold Interpretation of the Narnian Father Christmas." This paper was thick . . . excessively so, I thought. It was kind of hard to follow and by the end of it I wasn't quite sure what point he was trying to make. Also, the intent of the paper got a bit diluted in the after discussion when he spent a good five minutes discoursing on a tangent. All I know for sure is that he was examining different ways of explaining the presence of Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

12:25- Time for lunch . . . Scholl, Ardith and I get our food and spot Dr. Hawkins sitting in a nice, neutral, empty sort of spot, so we surround her. We had a good time discussing this and that with her, mostly at random. Anna showed up after she finished doing . . . that whole volunteer thing (I wasn't paying attention, so I don't know what it was). Loius Markos, of Houston Baptist University, gets up and does a drama that he had already done in chapel that morning: Screwtape's Millenial Toast. In it, he pretty much eviscerated modern teen culture, much to the amusement of the very much non-teenagers that the crowd mainly consisted of. In fact, here's the entire thing, online.

At the end of his monologue, he made reference to signals from "Chairman Muckrake" at the back of the room. I turned around to glance at Dr. Watson (the Conference Chair) and he was looking right at me with a rather funny expression of surprise, confusion, and amusement. Then he got up to dismiss us and so forth at the end of the thing.

Dr. Watson: As Chairman Muckrake, I must say that was one hell of a speech!

1:30- After walking briskly back to my room to retrieve a hard copy of my paper, I returned once again to the Education Building to attend the John Brown University Student Forum. I wasn't particularly keen on any of the papers in the next two sets of sessions, so I figured I'd see what the students from Andy's school had to offer. Scholl, Sharptiano, Barbour, Dr. Solganick, and Dr. Hawkins were all in attendance. I can make this fairly brief, I think. Three of the papers were essentially Power Point presentations and the computer was being mean and hateful. So Scholl got to play techie while the one student that didn't have her paper associated with the computer got up to read.

Paper #6- Evelyn Baldwin (Junior, English Education) presents "Gods by Machine: The Semi-Pelagianism of J. R. R. Tolkien's deus ex machina Resulotions." This was by far the most delectable title on the entire program, and the paper did not disappoint. She took a look at how Tolkien manages to get away with having main characters who are, ultimately, never able to save themselves without some outside help, and still stay believable. There was, of course, a brief discussion of important things like the origins of the term deus ex machina and its use and abuse in literature in general. Clearly I can't do this one justice, but it was good stuff.

Paper #7- Mariam DiPasquale (Sophomore . . . I think, Anthropology) presents "Boxen and C. S. Lewis's Childhood." It was all about the fantasy world of Boxen that C. S. Lewis created with his brother Warnie when they were children, and it included all sorts of illustrations that he had done and so forth. As far as that goes, it was rather interesting. It would have been a lot more interesting if she had spent a decent amount of time showing us how these childhood games influenced his later work, but whatever . . . It was too long considering the lack of substantial material, her Power Point really could have used help, and I think it would be safe to say that I was at least mildly bored by the end. Scholl, apparently, was ready to scratch out his own eyeballs and use them to plug his ears, but then, he is a person given to much excess.

Paper #8- Megan Lein (Sophomore . . . I think, ironically I have no idea what her major is) presents "The Great War, Tolkien, and the T. C. B. S." This one was considerably better than the previous one. The Power Point worked better, it didn't drag as much, etc. It was a report on Tolkien's small (4 guys), close group of college friends and the influence that they had on his early life, as well as a brief recap of what happened to them in WWI. Two of them died, and Tolkien was, of course, deeply affected by this. Again, there was some analysis of the influence that this had on him, but I thought that it needed more to really give it a point. However, I found the topic itself to be quite interesting, personally, never having heard the full story before. Scholl was quite weary of Power Point by this time.

Paper #9- Ruby Vasquez (Sophomore, History) presents "Tolkien's Revisions in the History of Middle Earth." I thought this one was rather good. She examined the three different versions that Tolkien wrote of the story of Turin Turambar and paid special attention to the differences in the workings of fate in each version. I don't remember who told us this, or when, but sometime during the Inklings class I remember hearing that if the audience of your paper could just watch your Power Point presentation and eliminate you from the picture entirely . . . Well, that's problematic. Ummm . . . duh. This paper would have benefited enormously from simply being read, as we didn't really need to see any pictures or anything of that kind. That notwithstanding, it was a worthy effort.

3:40- Now the real "fun" begins, with everyone I know (and myself) presenting practically all at once. I sat and listened to Anna Ross present "The Presence of Eros in The Screwtape Letters" and to Ardith present "Stereotype Used Effectively:Portrayals in That Hideous Strength." Both excellent, of course . . . I had heard portions of Anna's, as she was in my group last semester, and I had also heard Ardith's, of course.

4:45- The final session . . . Randy and Scholl both go before I do. I hadn't heard Randy's paper, "Unusual Women: Luthien and Orual." Clearly, I need to hear it again. I liked what I heard, but I probably only caught one word in four . . . I was a bit distracted. Scholl presented his "Creation and Afterlife: A Comparison of the Worldviews of Two Inklings." Naturally I'd heard that one before . . .

And then it was my turn . . . last paper of the day for everyone in the room ("What Dreams May Come: The Purgatory of Dante and Tolkien"). Interesting crowd we had managed to collect . . . I guess it was one of the occupational hazards for being in a session with Scholl after pretty much attending the same sessions with him all day. He had collected quite a following by this point.

Upon later reflection, it reminded me of one of those storybooks for very small children which follows a day in the life of the main character. They journey throughout the day, meeting new people and having new experiences and so forth, and then at the climax of the thing all of the people he has encountered throughout the story gather together with this main character as the center of whatever is going on . . . I'm not sure if I'm quite getting across what I mean, but there it is.

The entire JBU contingent snagged one wall, apparently returning the favor of our attendance at their session (and Scholl's generous helpings of technical assistance). We had been pestering Dr. Hawkins the entire day, of course, so naturally she slipped in. Even Dr. Jordan, of the Hamlet paper, found her way to this session, somehow or other. And naturally there was the mandatory contingent of available SC members, available, as always, to show some friendly, semi-questionable support. Gallagher and Martinez had come dragging in from . . . wherever for the previous session . . . Anna had just presented in the same room the session before . . . etc. Dr. Olson was heading up the session, due to yet another recent schedule change, and she was clearly having far too much fun with all of the goings-on. There were people there, and I knew virtually all of them, that's what I'm saying. It was weird, but clearly more enjoyable that way.

And then it was essentially over. I opted out of the dinner and seeing Shadowlands performed that evening in favor of attending Hootenanny (and I'm clearly not getting into that right now). The Conference was truly an epic experience, and I expect it will be handy discussion fodder for some time to come yet. You should go find yourself one to attend, because it is very much a lot of fun.

And speaking of epic, I can't help but wonder if this post is a record-breaker . . . for me, I mean. I have no idea how long the longest blogpost ever might be . . . Are you still reading this?! Good grief! Clearly I wrote this particular post with the express purpose of keeping certain details fixed in my own memory. If, for some reason, you're still there, it is clearly time for both of us to go find something constructive to do.

Personally, I'm casting a vote for sleep. *looks around* Clearly I am talking to myself as I am the only one in the room. That makes it unanimous. Good night.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

March 27, 2004

Please tell me this is a dream, Part I

The Shadow Council Players present A Midsummer Night's Dream:

Martinez- Theseus, Peter Quince, Prologue, Mustardseed
Scholl- Egeus, Tom Snout, Wall, Peaseblossom, Fairy Chorus
Wilson- Lysander, Oberon, Snug, Lion, Cobweb, Fairy Chorus
Myself- Demetrius, Nick Bottom, Pyramus
Anna- Hermia, Hippolyta, Robin Starveling, Moonshine, Moth, Fairy, Fairy Chorus
Ardith- Helena, Titania
Gallagher- Philostrate, Puck, Francis Flute, Thisby

Ah . . . this play = many much w00ten. We had fun. I would especially like to note the fact that the Elfin Ethicist and the Vengeful Cynic both appeared as fairies in our production. I wish I had a tape of the Fairy Chorus in action, "singing" Ardith to sleep. They sounded like the Boondock Saints or something . . . "And shepherds we shall be, for thee my Lord for thee, etc." Creepy.

I must say, also, that Wilson, speaking as if he were a bit . . . "thick" (as the lion) was quite amusing. But not as funny as Martinez suddenly busting out his John Wayne accent on us, completely at random. I kinda went sideways, laughing, and missed the part of the couch that I was aiming at . . . Fortunately, the floor was reasonably soft.

And . . . oh my goodness . . . for some reason this post is giving me all kinds of trouble. I just can't seem to do anything with it. I think I'm coming down with something nasty, too . . . And there's so much to do this week.

That notwithstanding, I'll leave it at this for now and . . . we'll see what happens tomorrow. Part 2 is forthcoming . . .

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

March 13, 2004

A Profusion of Triviality

So . . . It finally got here. And by "it" I mean the week where we got to do my most favoritest play: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. *does happy dance* It's really just too much fun. And we all enjoyed ourselves . . . ummm . . . mightily. Yeah. On to the cast listing:

Wilson- Jack "Ernest" Worthing
Myself- Algernon Moncrieff
Anna- Gwendolyn Fairfax
Ardith- Cecily Cardew
Gallagher- Lady Bracknell
Sharptiano- Rev. Dr. Chasuble
Sharon- Miss Prism
Scholl- Lane
Uncle Doug- Merriman

Of course, in a play like this, every part and member of the cast is rather important. And they all worked, I must say, rather well. Ummm . . . apologies to Gallagher, as always. Lady Bracknell isn't easy to pull off at the best of times, and you have that special handicap when it comes to playing female roles . . . not being one yourself, and all. I swear I'll give you two whole male roles in our next play. Now, won't that be nice?

Kudos to both Anna and Ardith for very convincing portrayals of empty-headed bimbo types. You were very very good at it. I'm sure that was quite a struggle for the two of you. At least, I hope so.

I should like to draw attention to the minor roles played by our illustrious butlers. Most impressive, those . . . To still have fun acting when one has sucked all of the emotion from one's voice . . . Very nice. Uncle Doug is always busting out with something I don't expect whenever I actually get him to participate, and . . . wow. Except for that one line where he tried to go all French and stuff, it was both effective and funny.

*also stores memory of good times from the performing of the infamous muffin scene at the end of Act II* I'd like to play through that one again, for the heck of it . . . The situation is just so ridiculous! *shakes Wilson's hand again* "Doctor . . ."

And I'm sure everyone is quite grateful to Scholl for making the connotations of the term "Bunbury" quite clear to all present. I should have thought they'd have caught on before he said anything, but . . . in any case, I'm glad I had him wait until we finished the play before revealing it. It would have been quite impossible to continue to use the term at all for the remaining two Acts, otherwise.

Dr. Watson, of course, was kind enough to enlighten my English Lit II class the next day, leaving us with that pleasant thought to mull over during Spring Break. I think he quite put the majority of the room off of Oscar Wilde, or at least off of "Earnest." Pity. He did, at least, point them towards Saki and Wodehouse. Which was how I wound up actually getting commended for reading in class. Watson was talking about Saki, you see . . . and he noticed that I was reading. And he asked, on the off-chance . . . and . . . yeah. I was reading The Complete Saki he had loaned me.

And speaking of all that, Dr. Johnson spun me a little morality tale the other day right before American History . . . something about a student who didn't graduate because he kept reading books that Dr. Watson had loaned him.

What's that you ask? Ummm . . . Yes, I have been reading Saki in Dr. Johnson's class, from time to time. He's quite the storyteller, by the way. You should stop by and get him to tell it to you sometime.

Now, what was I posting about again?

Oh, right.

Cracking good play . . . Simply smashing performances by all . . . Look forward to working with you people again in the future . . . *wanders off to enjoy Spring Break*

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

March 06, 2004

Plot Summary: Love makes people do stupid things. Duh. Hilarity ensues.

This week's bit-o-fun was Love's Labour's Lost, which is a very special play. I picked it as my second choice of six possibilities to do my Outside Reading Report on for class, having read it before. My first choice was All's Well That Ends Well . . . but they were numbered more or less at random.

Love's Labour's Lost is a lot like . . . well, okay, so it's a lot like every single other comedy that Shakespeare ever wrote. Weird love triangles, mix-ups, mistaken identity, general tomfoolery and hilarity. But specifically it reminds me of Much Ado About Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew. It has a very heavy focus on sharp wordplay between characters of opposite sexes and so forth (although LLL has by far the largest number of rhyming couplets that I've seen in a Shakespeare play thus far . . . it's outrageous).

The key difference is that in Much Ado, the conflict between the sexes is defused by a couple of benevolent outside parties and everybody wins. In Shrew, the man takes matters in his own hands and does it his way, resulting in a very clear (and disturbing) victory for malekind. In LLL there are no benevolent outside parties. The closest thing is Boyet, and he's too busy being amused by the lovers' foibles (and his wooing of all the ladies on the side) to really do anything. And there are no male characters with enough . . . gumption (some would call it backbone, some would call it crass lack of feeling) to come galloping in and sweep the ladies off their feet by whatever method works best (i.e. starving and beating them). As a result, we have a play where the women come out on top in a very big way. They make all the men look like complete idiots and have them bowing and scraping and agreeing to "enter hermitages/minister to the sick/abase themselves in general" for a full year and a day before they'll even think about coming back to consider marriage. Definitely not a traditional comedic ending . . . but quite a funny one, all the same.

Wilson- King Ferdinand, Holofernes, Mercade, Winter
Myself- Biron, Don Armado, Sir Nathaniel, Forester, Costard, Spring
Moore- Longueville
Sharptiano- Dumaine, Dull, Longueville, Sir Nathaniel
Anna- Princess
Ardith- Rosaline, Princess
Sharon- Maria, Catherine
Rachel- Catherine
Sarah- Jaquenetta, Rosaline
Scott- Mote, Dull, Dumaine
Scholl- Boyet
Gallagher- Costard, Longueville, Dumain, First Lord, Maria, Don Armado
Martinez- Costard
Lewis- Boyet

I especially feel the need to note that even I had a hard time not getting severely annoyed at Lord Biron (pronounced burr-OON . . . go figure). That guy can talk . . . it's insanity. Of particular note is his soliloquy in defense of love at the end of Act IV. Oh . . . my . . . goodness. I didn't time it, but I'm sure I was talking for at least two straight minutes. And it's hard to get a breath in between words when you're doing the whole "impassioned lover" thing, let me tell you. I was about to pass out from lack of air . . . seriously . . .

Things got very interesting at the end of Act V. See, after they've just made complete jackasses out of themselves in front of the ladies, the lords have to put up with watching another performance from some of the local commoners (and Don Armado . . . I have no idea whatsoever what practical explanation there could be for his presence in this play, he is extremely random). Anyway, the decide they can save face by totally ripping into the performance and slicing it to ribbons with their razor-sharp wit. Which they proceed to do. The thing is, you've got the king and lords played by Wilson, Scott, Sharptiano and me . . . and then you've got the performers played by Gallagher and, uhhh . . . Wilson, Scott, Sharptiano and me. So there was a bit of role-swapping, and a bit of making fun of . . . ourselves as two different characters. It was fun, and it was trippy . . . and the random security guy standing by with his hand on the light switch (it was time to lock up Longview Hall) made things just generally interesting on all sides.

In some ways it is rather a difficult play, though. Pronunciation is rough with some characters (I certainly don't envy Wilson the part of Holofernes with his horrible pseudo-Latin and whatnot), and if you don't pay attention things change really fast and you aren't quite sure what happened. It was a lot better with different people doing different parts, but when I read this one myself last summer I remember having to actually reread two or three scenes because I hadn't the faintest idea what had just happened. So . . . not an easy play to do well, and we had fun with it. Good stuff. Time to go to bed now, for sure.

Posted by Jared at 01:13 AM | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

It's a madhouse . . . a madhouse!!!

Well, I feel more than a little irresponsible for unleashing this particular monster on the world at large. And by monster, I mean play. And by the world at large, I mean . . . myself and whoever else was in the least disturbed by certain performances.

However, clearly, I am rather irresponsible, so I suppose it's alright to feel that way every now and then. And this week's play is my personal favorite (of Shakespeare's) so I don't care.

Anyway, this week we performed King Lear. Now I have it on . . . ummm . . . "authority" that this is the most difficult of Shakespeare's plays. Obviously I'm referring here to a certain class that I'm taking . . . You know, if there's one thing I'm tired of hearing about, it's the criticisms and difficulties that "modern readers" (that's almost a complete oxymoron) have with the plays we're reading. Modern readers are generally idiots. This is an awesome play.

Whatever. Time for this:

Wilson- King Lear
Milton- King of France, Edmund, Oswald
Anna- Regan, Goneril, Duke of Burgundy
Scholl- Duke of Cornwall, Edmund
Moore- Duke of Albany, Lear's Fool
Myself- Earl of Kent, Curan, First Servant, Oswald, Captain, etc.
Sharptiano- Earl of Gloucester, Knight, Gentleman, Second Servant, etc.
Ardith- Cordelia, Goneril, Regan
Ziggy- Edgar
Gallagher- Lear's Fool, Third Servant, Edgar, etc.
Sharon- Goneril
Scott- Edmund, Messenger, Gentleman, etc.
Uncle Doug- Old Man, Herald

You'll note the presence of a few new players this week. Uncle Doug was kind enough to lend us his geezer voice in between roller blading in all directions. And Ziggy displayed his talents as a madman. Good stuff. There are so many intense scenes here and there, but there were generally solid performances all around. Wilson obviously thought that King Lear was difficult to get a handle on, but then . . . I guess he is. Lear is a character of such wild and extreme passions . . .

I died twice. Again. These would be the fourth and fifth times for me. And the thing about it was, both of them were completely random. They were both characters I just happened to pick up, incidentally, and then they just kind of . . . died. I'm either getting really good or really annoying at saying, "O! I am slain!" I've done it at least once in every tragedy we've acted so far. Wilson, of course, has also died once in every tragedy. And Ardith died twice in this one as well . . . both times "off-screen." I'd think that perhaps Shakespeare had a thing against killing females on-stage, thinking also of Ophelia, but . . . no. Gertrude and Juliet leap immediately to mind as counter-examples. Hmmm . . . other notable dying stuff: I sensed a bit of frustration from Scott. Edmund was having a bit of trouble giving up the ghost at the end there. He divided his attention between bleeding and talking for a number of pages and managed several reasonably lengthy soliloquys before he finally succumbed.

Act III- Such a freaking cool act . . . And sitting, as Kent, amongst the three madmen (well, okay, a madman a fake madman and a Fool . . . whatever) I'd say that I truly and deeply sympathized with my character. That's gotta suck. I have my own little questions about Edgar, though . . . He gets into that whole "madman" thing a bit too much and a bit too well . . . He has issues.

It occurs to me, noting the end of this play, and running my mind over various others, that the chief tragic device employed by Shakespeare is the one that makes you sit back and yell at the characters, "Wow, y'all have the crappiest timing ever! Geez!"

Everybody sits around jawing with Edmund while he's really busy trying to die until "somebody" (read "Kent" . . . the guy who generally thinks of these things) says, "Oh! Ummm . . . Where's the king, by the way?"

Edmund: "Oh my goodness! I forgot! I sent him off to be executed!"

Kent: "Hmmm . . . That's probably not a good thing. Shouldn't somebody go take care of that?

Albany: "Yeah, probably. Who's gonna do that?"

Edgar: "I guess I will."

Albany: "Okay. Have fun."

Edgar: "Right."

Kent: "Hurry back."

Edgar: "I will, I will . . . Oh! What if they don't know that I'm delivering the message from you, Edmund? That might be problematic. Maybe you could give me a token or something, y'know."

Edmund: *slaps forehead* "Good thinking. Here, take my sword. I'll just unbuckle it here . . . There we go. Alright. Off with you then. You should probably hurry."

Edgar: "Uh-huh, sure thing. Be back in two shakes of a lamb's tail." *leaves . . . finally*

Albany: "Well, I'm glad that's taken care of. So anyway, what were you saying, Edmund?"

Edmund: "Drat. I lost my train of thought. And my doublet is getting all bloody."

Kent: "Ummm . . . Edmund? I think it's about the time, buddy."

Edmund: "Huh? Oh. Right." *dies . . . finally*

Edgar: *comes back* "I'm glad I only stopped for one drink on the way! The king's okay! They . . . uhhh . . . kinda killed Cordelia, though. He's not very happy about that."

Kent: "Well, shoot. At least he's still alive, though, huh?"

Lear: "Alas, Cordelia! My favorite daughter! Noooooo!" *dies*

All: "Well, shoot."

Right. That notwithstanding, I think that the quality of writing in this play is . . . rather exceptional, to say the least. (Well, duh . . . it's Shakespeare. I mean exceptional even compared to his other plays, clearly.) He explores a lot of really interesting themes in this play as well, and it's just generally great.

Notable line of the week: "Let copulation thrive!" Special, that. As is the rest of that little speech by Lear . . . in fact . . . Aww, what the heck:

I pardon that man's life. What was thy cause?
Thou shalt not die. Die for adultery? No.
The wren goes to't, and the small gilded fly
Does lecher in my sight.
Let copulation thrive; for Gloucester's bastard son
Was kinder to his father than my daughters
Got 'tween the lawful sheets.

(Act IV, Scene 6)

Posted by Jared at 10:26 PM | TrackBack

February 23, 2004

Robert Browning & The Insane Lover Obsession

"Porphyria's Lover"

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:
I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;
Which done, she rose, and from her form
Withdrew the dripping cloak and shawl,
And laid her soiled gloves by, untied
Her hat and let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me. When no voice replied,
She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare,
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o'er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me--she
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,
To set its struggling passion free
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,
And give herself to me for ever.
But passion sometimes would prevail,
Nor could to-night's gay feast restrain
A sudden thought of one so pale
For love of her, and all in vain:
So, she was come through wind and rain.
Be sure I looked up at her eyes
Happy and proud; at last I knew
Porphyria worshipped me; surprise
Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good: I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
And I untightened next the tress
About her neck; her cheek once more
Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss:
I propped her head up as before,
Only, this time my shoulder bore
Her head, which droops upon it still:
The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!
Porphyria's love: she guessed not how
Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!

I read a lot of romantic poetry this semester. This is somewhat logical, since we were kind of studying the Romantic Period and all, but I think it made me a bit complacent. Coming on the heels of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and especially Tennyson, Browning was a definite change of pace. What threw me off, though, was the fact that he pretended to be doing the same old thing as all the others at first.

I was feeling rather peaceful and complacent as the romantic scene was set in “Porphyria’s Lover.” I was pleasantly picturing the peaceful scene, trying to experience the poem and catch the author’s wavelength. And I was succeeding, I thought. There is a frightful storm going on outside, but inside all is calm comfort and tender affection. This seemed like an important contrast. The long, blonde hair, and head on the shoulder were a nice touch, and I was feeling altogether serene when he started playing with her hair.

I’d rather like to have a snapshot of my face when he choked her with it. I know I looked as shocked as I felt. However, since I didn’t get a picture of myself, I was forced to make up for it by recreating the effect. So I went and told a lot of people about it, and was highly amused by their reactions, which were more or less similar to mine. But the really creepy part of the poem, of course, is what happens next.

The narrator proceeds to restore Porphyria to her former position and sit there with her dead body for the rest of the night. The last line confused me, at first, so I read it through again. What does the silence of God imply about the sin he has committed? Does it serve as proof that he has done the right thing? I don't think so.

In fact, I don’t think that God is silent at all. God is omniscient; he knew what Porphyria’s lover was going to do. It seems to me that the wild storm that rages throughout the night, even before the dreadful murder happens, is clear evidence of God’s displeasure. The storm, described as it is at the beginning of the poem, seems to foreshadow the awful events that will transpire, if you are paying attention (which clearly I wasn’t, the first time through). The poem ends with the assertion that God is silent on the matter, but we know that this is not the case. Clearly God is neither silent nor pleased, as is clearly indicated by the opening lines. The meaning of it all, one way or another, seems to hinge on the storm.

The style of the poem, naturally, reminds me of the work of Poe. One of his stories that comes immediately to mind is “The Tell-Tale Heart” with its emphasis on the eyes of the victim, the extreme overconfidence which leads him to simply sit there with the body rather than attempt to hide what he has done, and especially the cold, clinical recounting of the story by which the narrator hopes to convince us of his sanity and only succeeds in doing just the opposite.

It seems to me, as I think about it, that madness in literature and in the movies is often revealed through an unnaturally strong feeling of ownership that the madman believes himself to have towards a particular woman, whether or not she is in love with him or even knows he exists. It is the sort of thing that one commonly finds when examining the psyche of a serial killer.

I don’t remember the exact period when modern criminal psychology became more prevalent and started being taken seriously, but it certainly wasn’t as early as this poem was written. So how did Browning tap into this? Did he just have incredible insight into the darker side of human nature, or is there a more sinister explanation? Obviously, there doesn’t seem to be any indication of any such behavior from him, but if I were a woman . . . Ummm . . . Hmmm . . . Y'know, hypothetical situations like that can't go anywhere good, so nevermind. But I wonder if Elizabeth Barrett (his wife) kept a wary eye on him. I know I would have.

Robert Browning, aside from being a talented poet, had a keen and disturbing sense of the grotesque and the macabre, just like Poe. Considering the fact that they were contemporaries, I can’t help but wonder if they influenced each other's writing in any way. That possibility not withstanding, they did write on some of the same themes, and they did it well. Fun stuff.

Posted by Jared at 02:38 AM | TrackBack

Lord Tennyson & The Looney Female Obsession

Yeah, I know I already wrote something about "The Lady of Shalott." This is different. Shut up and read it.

On the surface, “The Lady of Shalott” is a rather ridiculous poem. I’ve read three different versions of the Arthurian legend in my (short) time: I read the Howard Pyle version (which is more traditional) quite a long time ago and don’t remember it very well. More recently I read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (which is my favorite, being more satirical in nature . . . I strongly recommend that you read the provided excerpt, if you never have), and Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle (which attempts, sometimes successfully, to combine the fantastic elements of the story with some degree of historical accuracy and a distinctly Christian worldview).

I don’t remember the episode described in Tennyson’s poem from any of those versions, so I’m not entirely certain where it came from, and lack, perhaps, some key background information. As such, this is how the poem appears at first blush: There is a random woman stuck in a random tower on a random island near Camelot. Apparently she is the only one in the tower. I don’t know how she manages practical necessities (like food) but she is under some kind of enchantment, so perhaps that accounts for it. Her job is to sew what she sees of the world in her magic mirror into a tapestry that she is weaving. There is a window within glancing distance, but she can’t look out of it or a curse will fall on her . . . for some reason. One wonders about the wisdom of having said window at all, but I digress.

So as she sits here, who should happen along, but Sir Lancelot himself! The description is stunningly dramatic. You can just picture him (only when you do, you shield your eyes, lest you be blinded in the glare) galloping in slow motion, armor sparkling and glistening like mad in the sunlight, long, flowing hair blowing out behind him in a shimmering wave, peasant girls swooning right and left. Now, I have been told that females, like jackdaws and raccoons, are fascinated by shiny things. I cannot speak one way or the other as to the veracity of this statement, but in the case of the Lady of Shalott, Lancelot’s radiantly shining armor seems to have turned her head a bit. Unsatisfied with the fleeting glimpse she got in her mirror, she goes to the window. Now, this is obviously a big mistake, because all hell breaks loose inside her little tower and she knows her days are numbered.

I am reminded, somehow, of the story of Eve from Genesis. She, too, was forbidden to do one specific thing, she, too, gave into the temptation and did it anyway, and she, too, was cursed to die as a result (but did not die right away). The only real difference, in this case, is that there the Lady of Shalott has no man to drag down with her . . . Lancelot having wisely continued on his merry way (his doom will be along soon enough, and it will be in female form, of course). However, also like Eve, the Lady of Shalott can’t stay in her nice, protected sanctuary anymore now that she has looked out of the window and seen the real world.

I’d like to imagine that her next move is entirely her own decision and has nothing whatsoever to do with the curse. She’s going to die, that’s certain, but what she does until then is entirely up to her, I think. So, what does she do? She slaps her name on a boat, climbs in, and floats herself in the general direction of Camelot. And she dies on the way.

I think she’s sending a message to Sir Lancelot, in typical female fashion. Sure, he was just galloping along innocently, minding his own business, but (to her mind) look what he caused! She has to die now, and it’s his fault. So her final act is to lay a guilt trip on him. She’ll float her carcass down to Camelot, and he’ll see that she’s dead, and then he’ll be sorry. Logically, it wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t his problem, but the Lady of Shalott is clearly the emotional type . . . no logic in this one, fellas, and he’ll be made to feel that it was his responsibility just the same.

But we men have the last laugh in the end. Like a typical male, Lancelot totally misses the point of the entire message and (ironically) remains blissfully ignorant of his own role in the tragedy. Sure he seems a little melancholy for a few minutes when he sees her there, but, judging by what he says at the sight of her, I’m guessing he’s just mourning the passing of a pretty face. Moral: Women are subtle and vindictive. Men are oblivious and self-centered and not terribly bright. Men win.

Maybe my assessment of this poem is a bit fanciful, and maybe not, but one way or another, I really like the poem. It has a beautiful and prolonged rhythm in each "stanza" with its four rhyming lines, “Camelot,” three rhyming lines, and “Shalott.” The descriptions are full of colors and characters and settings that are brighter and larger and clearer than real life. And it’s actually a fairly good King Arthur story with its magical enchantments, knights in shining armor, and fair damsels in lonely towers. I enjoy those elements, as long as I don’t think about them too hard, and “The Lady of Shalott” is a highly enjoyable piece of escapism for me.

Posted by Jared at 01:34 AM | TrackBack

February 22, 2004

John Keats & The Classical Greek Obsession

"On First Looking into Chapman's Homer"

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific--and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise--
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

"On Seeing the Elgin Marbles"

My spirit is too weak; mortality
Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,
And each imagined pinnacle and steep
Of godlike hardship tells me I must die
Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.
Yet 'tis a gentle luxury to weep,
That I have not the cloudy winds to keep
Fresh for the opening of the morning's eye.
Such dim-conceived glories of the brain
Bring round the heart an indescribable feud;
So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,
That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude
Wasting of old Time -with a billowy main,
A sun, a shadow of a magnitude.

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” gives us the author’s impressions of a particularly good translation of the epics of Homer. And it makes him very happy. You don't hear this kind of orgasmic eloquence very often (if you'll pardon the word in this instance . . . I really couldn't think of a better one). I am reminded, specifically, of Moore contemplating a donut which he holds in his hand, turning it every which way so that it catches the light and expounding at great length on the beauty of the thing. Keats produces two very vivid metaphors to communicate to us the fact that he has a beautiful new world opened up and spread out before him. He has been there and done that, he tells us, but he’s never experienced anything quite like this.

“On Seeing the Elgin Marbles,” quite the opposite of the other, seems very conflicted in its impressions. Unlike Cortez, staring out over a new discovery “with eagle eyes,” Keats is now “like a sick eagle looking at the sky”. Clearly, the sky is where he belongs, where he must be in order to witness these grand vistas, but he is sick and unable to reach the necessary height. He is pained by the marked contrast between the magnificence of the artwork, and the damage and the fading that time and weather have caused to them. The Marbles are but a shadow of their former selves, and he grieves for what is lost. Again, I am reminded of Moore . . . after he has eaten his last cookie and is gazing sadly at the crumbs left behind.

Both of these poems are expressions of an intense overflow of emotion from reading a great piece of literature or viewing a (formerly) great work of art for the first time. Keats got excited about all things Classical and Greek, it would seem, and he didn’t like to see the beauty or glory of it fade. He could probably learn a few lessons from Shelley when it comes to such matters, but that is unimportant. He apparently wasn’t very particular about detail (he said Cortez . . . he meant Balboa) but he makes up for it with his enthusiasm for the subject.

I know people who feel this way about any number of things. I've already mentioned Moore and his food twice, for instance. I get this excited myself about many things. The knee-jerk reaction with Keats’ (or anyone's) expressions of high emotion over the things he is particularly enamored of is one of ridicule. You laugh at him because he is so happy about inky squiggles on a page, or because he is saddened about some shaped lumps of rock, but the fact is, we all have something (or, more likely, somethings . . . even Moore has computers . . . and Sharon, I suppose) that we get excited about which probably seems just as silly and insignificant to someone else. I can certainly remember showing this kind of passion, even, for poems as short as these on occasion . . . not to mention much longer works . . . movies . . . songs . . . paintings . . . just to name a few of the more reasonable ones. I don’t begrudge Keats his obsessions, just as I hope no one begrudges me mine, but, just as others do with me, I still reserve the right to be amused by them.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

Percy Shelley & The Ecclesiastes Obsession


We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! - yet soon
Night closes round; and they are lost for ever;

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.- A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise. - One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same! - For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.


I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

So, in “Mutability,” we're all a bunch of clouds and old musical instruments and so on and so forth . . . constantly in motion . . . constantly changing. We sleep, we wake, we go about doing our little things here and there, acting out our personal dramas and just generally . . . living. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad, but it all comes out in the wash, in the end. Whatever mood we find ourselves in will pass, each day bringing something completely different from the one before, right? The only thing that remains unchanged is the fact of Change (“Mutability”) itself. Lovely.

Now, in “Ozymandias” you've got some random guy wandering around the desert for no good reason, and he spots something that makes such an impression on him that he remembers it throughout the rest of his travels and bores random people with the story. In some long-forgotten place, half-ruined, broken, and buried beneath desert sands, he has seen the remains of a massive statue (I just can't get away from the end of Planet of the Apes when I think about this, much to my chagrin). It is the image of a forgotten king who ruled a forgotten kingdom. His face is proud and full of the dreadful knowledge of his own power. The inscription on the monument indicates that this king thought that he and his works would be around a lot longer than he or they actually were. There is nothing but this statue left of whatever mighty empire this man built for himself in ages long gone. These things just don’t last, and he didn't figure that out.

I find that Shelley’s poetry brings vivid pictures leaping directly into my imagination. I can’t tell for sure what his mood is in “Mutability,” but I his observations are perfectly accurate. He seems, perhaps, a bit apathetic, as if he is tired of the emotional ups and downs of life and wishes to forswear them. Yeah. Good luck with that one, Pers. Somehow, I doubt he pulled it off. “Ozymandias,” on the other hand, is particularly enjoyable because it fairly reeks of irony. And we can't forget the fact that everyone loves to see bad things happen to people. Watching the mighty laid low is a lot more likely to make us laugh than cry, somehow. There is so much cold, hard pride in the inscription on the broken statue of the king, and such certainty, engraved on the face of stone, that he and his accomplishments will never be forgotten. There is no doubt in his mind . . . But the state of the monument and the surrounding wasteland begs to differ . . . They are a quietly powerful testament to the foolish vanity of the man who thought he would be immortal.

Clearly, Shelley caught the same intellectual wave as the author of Ecclesiastes. In fact, he flat out rips Solomon off. I think it would be fairly safe to assume that he was "inspired" by another source for this poetry. I could quote nearly any verse from Ecclesiastes and it would be relevant to analyzing one of these two poems: The constant references to the ever-changing nature of things, chasing after the wind, the observations that everything passes away, nothing is forever, all that is on earth is transient.

I find that the statement, “There is nothing new under the sun,” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) is especially relevant to Shelley’s poetry. Even his own observations on transience and mutability merely echo the centuries-old observations of a much wiser man who came before . . . Ironic, that.

Posted by Jared at 11:17 PM | TrackBack

February 20, 2004


Okay, so this week's play, clearly, was Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. And, clearly, I have had a heck of a time arriving at a point where I could actually type up my weekly report. Gah! Stupid, freaking BUSINESS! Not to mention certain people who steal certain other people's keyboards.

But here goes nothing:

Ardith- Eliza Doolittle
Wilson- Henry Higgins
Myself- Colonel Pickering
Anna- Mrs. Pearce, Mrs. Higgins, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill
Moore- Freddy, General Narration
Milton- Alfred P. Doolittle, Bystander, Parlor Maid, General Narration
Sharon- Mrs. Eynsford-Hill, Parlor Maid
Scholl- Miss Eynsford-Hill, Sarcastic Bystander, General Narration
Gallagher- General Narration

Such a freaking hilarious play . . . My favorite line, clearly, is the title of this post. Clearly, one must roll one's "r"s like mad when saying it. But there are so many great lines! And they're so funny!

Ardith: "I'm a good girl, I am! Aaaaaah--ow--ooh! Garn!" Heeheehee! I've no idea where she picked up that accent, but it was hilarious.

Wilson: "Eliza, you're an idiot. I waste the treasures of my Miltonic mind by spreading them before you." Heeheehee! Wilson was rather chilling as Higgins, I must say. They are . . . rather similair people. Except Wilson doesn't have an Oedipus complex. I don't think.

Oh, and be sure and ask Milton about his Texan Brit . . . We said we'd make Shaw spin in his grave, and I've no doubt we did.

Scholl as young woman . . . don't go there. Ever. Gah. He was rather too good at it. Uncomfortably so. Oh, and I'd like all of you to give the new small talk a try. It's really quite ripping!

I'm curious as to how that epilogue is incorporated into the play, if at all. It seems generally odd to have such a large chunk of written material that explains what came next and yet is not really part of the play. Curious technique, that. I definitely need to look into more plays by Shaw, however. You know . . . like someday when I have time and stuff.

*laughs at self*

*Time joins in*

*we laugh together*

And yes, this post is excessively disjointed because I don't have time or brain power to expend on any other kind of post at this moment. My next few entries, coming VERY soon, will probably be related to the English journals I'm writing . . . so consider yourself warned.

Continuing . . . My Fair Lady (Pygmalion) is the same movie as Anastasia! The parallels are legion . . . and undeniable. I shall go into them with you on demand if necessary, but I don't feel like typing them all out here. Anastasia packs a bigger emotional punch, certainly, but no more than is absolutely necessary to make it a drama instead of a comedy. And they changed the ending, slightly. But it's all the same story . . . although I suppose I should be sure to attribute the plot to the proper source . . . trippy and jacked-up as the story is.

Of these three variations on the same basic theme Shaw's Higgins character is by far the most unlucky, being rather unfortunately unable to keep a handle on his Galatea, poor devil. In this he bears a closer resemblance to Dr. Frankenstein . . . or Prometheus, I suppose. But then, I imagine he really doesn't care, in the end.

It is, however, an interesting plot to develop in general, albeit an overused one. On an only slightly related note, according to imdb, if you like Anastasia, you will also like (according to a long and twisted string of recommended titles) Home Alone 3. Special.

Posted by Jared at 11:59 PM | TrackBack

February 16, 2004

Wheeler, "With Post"

Gah. Dr. Watson is kinda sick, now that I think about it. Him and his whole "with poem" thing . . . I don't find that I am entirely comfortable with the idea of giving birth to a blogpost. Mostly because, at best, it winds up being a twisted mutant child. But I had that presentation in English Lit II today, and consequently I am "with post."

To begin with, Dr. Watson is, like, the most absent-minded person ever when it comes to remembering stuff about presentations. He cares as little as I do about them, but has less motivation to remember when they are. I've had to supply the date of our presentation to him every time I've mentioned it thus far (and that has turned out to be often). So this morning I wander into his office to say hello, and pick up the Tennyson recording he's loaning me, and he asks me what I'm up to this morning. I told him I was just generally roaming, skipping chapel (which confused him briefly, since chapel hadn't started yet), and practicing my presentation.

"Oh? Do you have a presentation today?"


"What class?"

I laughed at him. He remembered.

*fast-forwards boring details until beginning of presentation* I go sit in the corner at the front to watch the opening (I know what they're doing, but I'm not involved in this part). Yearsley gets up and launches into "The Charge of the Light Brigade" with the kind of gusto and fervor I don't often have the pleasure of hearing from anyone (except on Thurday nights, from people like Moore). At the same time, Logan comes, well, charging into the midst of us wearing cardboard armor and riding a broomstick ("We found a witch!" . . . fortunately for him, he stayed on the ground). When Yearsley came to "Cannons to the right of them! Cannons to the left of them!" Robert hauls out a double handful of Reese's pieces . . . thingies and lets fly at Logan with a loud "BOOM!" Logan continues to run amongst the desks, half trying to duck and cover from the sprays of candy blanketing the room like . . . grapeshot, I suppose. Very nonlethal grapeshot.

I was amused. Everyone was amused. Watson ate candy, and was highly amused. Then came devo. I tuned out, because I was thinking about what I was going to say. It was on Psalm 92 and it somehow tied in with chapel and with David being a great poet. That's all I know.

Then Robert gave his talk on Tennyson's life. Robert was nervous. I could tell Robert was nervous. And I was somewhat upset with Payton. *notes confused looks* Payton, in Speech last semester, officially made it impossible not to notice every single solitary time that people say "Um" when they are speaking in front of others. And it drives me insane. And Robert said "Um" a lot. Grrr . . .

At least I don't notice when I say "Um" in general. If I did, I'd be really annoyed. However, Robert's talk did give me a certain amount of confidence, because I knew I could one-up it. And then I got up to talk about Lord Tennyson and DEATH . . . (ba-ba-ba-BUM). Tennyson wrote about death, like, all the time. It's rather depressing, I couldn't help but notice, and very affecting, when you're sitting all alone very late at night, reading this stuff and trying to get inside his head.

This isn't as apparent in The Lady of Shalott and Morte d'Arthur because the tone is so elevated and he pours it on so thick, that unless you really just want to get emotional, it's not going to happen. The Lady of Shalott, in fact, is kind of ridiculous, really. It's black humor, highly ironic . . . but probably not meant so. The Lady of Shalott basically sits around in her tower all day and watches the world through her magic mirror so she can record things on a tapestry. She isn't allowed to look out of the window at all or a curse will come upon her because . . . ummm . . . because it's a poem. Shut up. Well, one day, who should happen by, happy singing a tune, but Sir friggin' Lancelot himself. The Lady spots him in the mirror, runs over and gazes upon him out of the window as he gallops off on his merry way (followed, no doubt, by a strange-looking fellow clapping ends of a coconut together).

The mirror cracks from side to side, the tapestry flies out the window, and things just generally suck. The Lady of Shalott, being (as Moore would say) exceptionally crafty, goes down and paints her name on the prow of a boat, then lays herself down in it, clad in far more white than is good for her. She then proceeds to float down the river, lying disconsolately in the bottom of the boat, singing her own funeral dirge, like a right-morbid watery old tart. And so she dies, which kind of sucks for her, I suppose. Then again, she was basically spending all of her time sitting in a tower and sewing while she watched soaps. Personally, I think she wins. So then we get to the irony. Her boat shows up at Camelot, where they are having a party. And everyone shuts up real fast and everyone is very sad. And Lancelot sits and gazes upon the fair lady, and wishes God's mercy on her . . . because she's pretty, (presumably he wouldn't be so charitable, otherwise). And that's how it ends, and Lancelot has no idea that he was the cause of all this. It's incredibly sappy, but I've been in incredibly sappy moods before, so I won't say that it totally sucks. It's rather good poetry . . . very relaxing rythm to it and so forth.

So that's Tennyson and his focus on death in Arthurian legend. Next came Tennyson writing about death in the events of his day. I didn't even bother to try explaining the Crimean War, for obvious reasons. That's gotta be the most confusing war ever. Basically it boils down to France, England, and Turkey ganging up on Russia because France and Russia both want religious rights of one sort or another in Jerusalem. And they all run over and fight each other on the Crimean Peninsula, which, it turns out, is not technically in France, England, Russia, Turkey, or anywhere near Jerusalem. It's kind of a sad little war, in any case. Three years, three major battles . . . But the second one was rather interesting, and Tennyson wrote a poem about a piece of it.

Actually, the Battle of Balaklava was loaded with heroic holdings of the line, heroic charges, heroic last stands, and so forth . . . The Charge of the Light Brigade was the most monumentally stupid of them all, and the most costly . . . which makes it the most heroic, almost by default. So Tennyson wrote about it, because he was into that whole "dead hero" thing.

If you don't know the real story, it's a pretty good one, and I had a good time telling it in class, with various pictures to assist. Balaklava is a particularly hilly region and it is being held by the . . . non-Russians. A massive Russian force sweeps in and chases the Turks away from some artillery that they have set up, and they run off to warn the British. *insert various heroic actions here* As the battle progresses, the officers down on the ground can see very little of what is going on except in certain directions, while the generals up above have a pretty good grasp of the big picture. The commanding general spots the Russians moving in to remove the guns that they have captured from the Turks and decides that he doesn't want them doing that. He sends down a message to the Light Brigade ordering them to "prevent the removal of the guns."

The Light Brigade says to itself, "Self, I wonder which guns he means. Hmmm . . . I only see those guns down there. He must mean those. Rather odd. That's a lot of guns. This seems a bit suicidal. Oh, well. Charge!!!"

Tennyson's "Jaws of Death" is a very accurate description. 673 light cavalry go barreling down the valley in two waves, directly into massive cannon fire, and caught in a deadly crossfire from both sides of them as well. The first wave reaches the guns, and the Russians who were too stupid to get out of the way get mowed down, and the first wave continues forward, plowing into a significantly larger mass of Russian cavalry that is waiting (a bit dumbstruck at this move by the British). Meanwhile, the second wave goes flying by the guns, kills more hapless Russian gunners, and plows into the first wave, which is retreating from much-too-large mass of cavalry that they had so recently attacked. So they're all kind of milling about in the spot, stuck between the Russian guns and the Russian cavalry, and before long it is decided that leaving is just generally a good idea. Unfortunately, the Russian lancers waiting in the wings have moved around in front to cut them off. However, as the British begin to run, the lancers step aside with just a few perfunctory pokes to make sure they keep going. No one is really certain why they did this. I suspect they just didn't want to risk themselves against an enemy that was obviously broken and not coming back.

Long story short, the Light Brigade is down to about 100 men with horses, the British *sort of* win the battle of Balaklava, and the Russians (who had initially thought that the British were just drunk) gain a healthy respect for the light cavalry. Which doesn't actually matter because they are pretty much broken and are unable to play a significant role for the rest of the war.

At this point in my presentation, we listened to the recording of Tennyson reading a portion of his poem. You couldn't actually understand what he was saying at all unless you were reading along. It just sounded like a rythmic, "BLA bla blabla blabla, BLA bla blabla blabla" for a little over a minute. Strangely, if you knew what he was saying, you could very clearly hear him say it.

"Creepy," says I, when it was over (because it kinda was). Then, as I'm about to continue the slide show, the CD continues on into some sort of classical music selection. Heh. "Stopping this would probably be a good idea," I conjectured as I moved the stupid cursor up to take care of it. I suppose I could have turned it down a bit and left it playing, but . . . nah.

I moved on to shaky ground . . . the poem "In Memoriam" written about Tennyson's friend Arthur Hallam when he died at the age of 22. I was more than a bit disturbed, and also most affected, by this poem. It's crazy long, and they don't even include the entire thing in Norton (which drives me up the wall). Tennyson wrote it over a seventeen year period . . . He spent 20% of his life getting over the death of this friend. The work contains 133 separate poems, and all the ones that I read were really good. The thing is loaded with famous quotes, including, "It is better to have loved and lost/than never to have loved at all." (#27)

Dr. Watson wanted clarification (having told me before class that he wasn't particularly familiar with this one): "Now, this is written about a guy?"

"Yes, yes it is."

The thing can be divided into four sections by the chief emotions expressed in each section: Despair, Doubt, Hope, and Faith. So it becomes less depressing, but no less emotional, as you move forward in it. The turning point into each section is written at Christmas time, #s 28, 78, and 104. 9-15 and 19 were all written as he accompanied the body back to England on a ship, these are especially poignant. Also, 54-56 express some very intense anger at and/or doubt in God. But ultimately the best ones are in the last section where he contemplates the afterlife quite a bit, and has dreams of meeting his friend after he dies.

This poem made Tennyson famous when it was finally published in 1950. He was able to marry the girl that he couldn't marry before because he was too poor. He was declared Poet Laureate of England. And he became by far the most popular poet of his age. A dying gift from a friend . . . but he'd rather have had the friend, I think.

I vacillate between being genuinely disturbed at the prospect of a seventeen-year period of mourning and the obsessive writing of poetry throughout all that time, and being deeply affected by the signs of a rather amazing friendship. I tend more towards the latter, because I think I kind of understand just a fraction of a minute portion of the way he felt . . . Maybe.

Finally, I talked about what Tennyson wrote of his own death. "Crossing the Bar" was written three years before he died, and he directed that it be placed at the end of every collection of his works (as far as I understand, it has been). When he died, it was put to music and sung at his funeral, and I am told that you can still find it some hymnals . . . although I have no idea what sort. At this point in the presentation, Yearsley came up and read the poem . . . which is rather a good poem (and so I shall post it).

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

It's hard to know when to risk trying to affect your audience, and when to just keep it light (which is considerably easier), but Yearsley did a good job of reading the poem in a very quiet, moving tone. So I went for both, and ended the presentation thusly:

"So, lot's of death and sadness . . . Have a good cry." (This last being something I think Watson might say, and said with my best impression of Watson.)

I got quiet chuckles and a lot of staring off into space. Haha!!!

Wait, nevermind . . . they just weren't paying attention. Ah, well . . . we can't all aspire to the lofty post of English Major, now can we?

I don't know what all the contributing factors were, but we got a 92 (the choice of Psalm was rather prophetic, I suppose . . . Logan should have chosen Psalm 150 . . . drat). That was pretty cool, because it was only about 20 minutes long, and the syllabus calls for 30-35. w00t.

And then we finished watching Frankenstein. *sniggers* Talk about a change of pace . . .

Hmmm . . . time to get work done.

Posted by Jared at 10:30 PM | TrackBack

February 14, 2004

Romeo and Juliet Post, Take Two

Okay. *deep breath* In the continuing general spirit of St. Valentine's Day, I recreate (to the best of my ability) my post of last night/this morning. We begin with a cast list:

Wilson- Romeo, Prince Escalus, Paris, Chorus, Gregory, etc.
Ardith- Juliet
Moore- Capulet, Apothecary, etc.
Gallagher- Lady Capulet, Tybalt, Friar John, Servant, Musician, Watchman, etc.
Myself- Mercutio, Friar Lawrence, Paris, Sampson, Peter, Chief Watchman, etc.
Sharpton-Benvolio, Balthasar, Servant, Musician, Watchman, etc.
Scott- Montague, Servant, etc.
Rachel- Lady Montague, Nurse
Anna- Nurse
Sharon- Nurse
Scholl- Prince Escalus

Again, and as always, there was much swapping about of roles and playing of multiple roles and so forth. Ohhhh, there was much amusement to be had this week. I think the bad rap that Romeo and Juliet has amongst many people is rather unfair. It really is a great play, all in all. But who wants to see random people they don't know doing the whole starry-eyed bit? I mean, really, it's bad enough when you have to watch your friends do it. However, when simply performed, and not overdone or taken too seriously, by people you know, it's really quite entertaining. Ultimately, however, I have one word to say about the way events unfold in the play: "D'oh!!!"

Anyway, I had more fun than I should probably be allowed to have with the character of Mercutio. It's rather a nasty and unpleasant habit Shakespeare has of killing off the best characters in their prime (around Act III, I mean). Someone should have broken him of it. Of course, if Mercutio hadn't died, then it would have been a comedy . . . You wouldn't have heard any complaining from me. Come to think of it, he killed two of my characters! Of all the nerve . . . that's just downright insulting. Come to think of it, I've died twice in both of the tragedies we've done. Death speeches are sooo much fun. "Oh, I am slain!" (Who says that, really . . . I mean c'mon!)

So, can I remember what else I'd written about the play? Yeah, right. But I don't recall that it was particularly important or interesting anyway. I would like to note that there are two or three more posts festering in my brain right now, and it isn't very pleasant. But the general lack of time means that they will have to wait. I'm certainly not going to mess with them right now . . . G'bye.

Posted by Jared at 11:50 PM | TrackBack

February 09, 2004

The Perfect Metaphor

I'm generally annoyed that I didn't include this in my previous post, but I want to remember it for future reference, so here it is. Even if you've never read this book, this may still work for you.

The Sound and the Fury is like the cursed carousel from Something Wicked This Way Comes (note picture on cover at link). You climb on and it begins to spin like mad . . . color, flashing, blinding . . . lights, strobing, whirling, dancing . . . noise, half-music, crashing, deafening . . . and you can't get off. Around and around and around and around, and as you continue to go around, revisiting (reliving) the same little path over and over again, you get old, and then you die. And you've spent your whole life trapped in the craziness, living and reliving more times than you can count.

There. I'm glad I got that out of my system.

Posted by Jared at 08:30 AM | TrackBack

February 08, 2004

The Twilight Zone

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Finished at approximately 0330 hrs, February 8, 2004
Rating: 94

This book was a pretty wild ride for me. More of an adventure and an experience than any other book I've read recently. I couldn't (and didn't) just sit and read it. I felt it and lived it. Despite my complaints concerning stream-of-consciousness, I got into the characters' heads and I knew what they knew. It wasn't the same as when you see and hear what the characters see and hear, as in most books . . . I saw and heard what they saw and heard how they saw and heard it. The characters intrigued me. Some, I recognized as people I know (kinda scary). The rest, I felt as if I knew by the time I was done. Jason and Quentin particularly struck a chord, if I had to pick two.

I don't fully identify with Quentin, but I sympathize with him. He is truly a hopeless romantic. He has almost a symbiotic relationship with this ideal of women being pure and unspoiled . . . So much so, in fact, that when the ideal dies, he can't survive it by very long. The odd thing that just occured to me is: I know what happened to him, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually say he committed suicide anywhere in the book. On the flip side, he does say, over and over, that he has committed incest with his sister. But I don't think he actually did . . .

The poor guy is full of high and noble ideas about, as I say, chivalry and purity and nobility and love (but not sex by any means) that he has built his emotional foundation on, but he is completely unable to live up to them. And is if that weren't bad enough, he tries to live this out by protecting his sister from a man who possesses all of these traits. Ouch. Forced to recognize that he falls miserably short of his own ideal self, and at the same time, forced to see that his sister is just the opposite of the ideal that he needed her to be, he is doomed.

Jason, on the other hand . . . The first six words we hear out of him are: "Once a bitch always a bitch . . ." If he is harboring any illusions about women, then they are the opposite of Quentin's. Jason is the eternal victim. Everyone is out to get him, all the time. Every move made by the people around him is carefully calculated to cause the most inconvenience possible. And he loves it. He begs for more. When his boss mentions (he doesn't complain, in fact, he says "It's all right.") that Jason has been gone for the entire afternoon from the store where they work, Jason all but begs to be fired ("If it's not all right, you know what you can do about it.") He'd love that, I think.

When he leaves his house after breakfast, Luster still hasn't put the spare tire on the car because he's been watching Benjy (the retarded man).

I went on back to the garage. There was the tire, leaning against the wall, but be damned if I was going to put it on.

Later, when he has gone on a wild goose chase out of town after Quentin (the illegitmate daughter of his sister Caddy, not his brother Quentin who committed suicide) and she has managed to let all of the air out of one of his tires before escaping back to town, he revels in the situation.

Well, I just sat there. It was getting on toward sundown, and town was about five miles. They never even had guts enough to puncture it, to jab a hole in it. They just let the air out. I just stood there for awhile, thinking about that kitchen full of niggers and not one of them had time to lift a tire onto the rack and screw up a couple of bolts. It was kind of funny because even she couldn't have seen far enough ahead to take the pump out on purpose, unless she thought about it while he was letting the air out maybe. But what it probably was, was somebody took it out and gave it to Ben to play with for a squirt gun because they'd take the whole car to pieces if he wanted it.

Ohhh, he loves it . . .

It's a curious thing how no matter what's wrong with you, a man'll tell you to have your teeth examined and a woman'll tell you to get married. It always takes a man that never made much at anything to tell you how to run your business, though. Like these college professors without a whole pair of socks to their name, telling you how to make a million in ten years, and a woman that couldn't even get a husband can always tell you how to raise a family.

He has advice for everyone about everything, all the time. But they rarely hear what it is. Everyone is always doing everything wrong. They're always doing something monumentally stupid. No one has any sense. It amuses him to recognize this and say nothing. If that's the way they want to do it, let them. Of course, he's usually wrong . . . He sees the black man who works at the store making a delivery in the old wagon and notes that a wheel is about to come off. So he stays put to see if the guy'll get out of the alley before it does. The wheel doesn't come off, but that doesn't stop him from going off on an entire train of thought about his lousy perceptions of the whole race, what a poor businessman his boss is, etc.

When he gets two free tickets to the show that's in town from his boss, and Luster begs him for one, he offers to sell it for five cents. Luster hasn't got five cents, so Jason pops open the stove and burns both tickets right in front of him. The only person forced to interact with Jason Compson who I have no sympathy for is Mother. Before I move on briefly to her, I want to mention one other thing: I know Jason . . . well.

Mother is the same as Jason, really. She's just a lot louder and more whiney. She's a much more extreme sort of victim . . . She's a martyr. Out of her four children, Jason is the only good one. The other three were just a curse on her. But she deserved it. She is devoted to Jason. She does everything she can to make his life easier, even though she is sick unto death. And she makes sure he knows it, too. *checks . . . finds no actual evidence that she ever does anything* She knows she's just a burden, but she'll be gone soon, and then his life will be easier, and this comforts her. I guess it's supposed to comfort him too. In any case, she's been saying it for fifteen years. I also know Mother . . . well. *is not referring to his own mother*

The weirdest thing about this book is that the most important character . . . isn't in it. It's like a black hole . . . you only know it's there because everything else is revolving around it. Caddy is the center of everything, but she is only seen in random flashbacks. Without her at the center of things, the family is slowly shaking itself to pieces. It has shattered, it will shatter, it is shattering.

But no one is going to see this happen. There isn't an end to the story. There isn't any closure. In fact, ultimately you end up having read the same story four times. Each perspective filled in a few different gaps, but what you are left with isn't complete. The repetition gave me a sense of futility and of being trapped. I almost get the feeling that if the book went on, I would turn the page only to find myself re-reading Benjy's section. Just as the reader is stuck in the minds of the different characters, so is each character stuck in his own memories forever. I feel every bit as trapped by the crazy world of the book as everyone in it is. You can't get out. You are doomed to repeat.

. . . I think I'm haunted . . .

Posted by Jared at 08:15 PM | TrackBack

February 06, 2004

"An Infinite Deal of Nothing"

-Quote from The Merchant of Venice (Act I, Scene 1)

Well, I've been devoting myself prodigiously to the completion of The Sound and the Fury. After I vented in my last post . . . ummm . . . How does one say it? Let's just say that something clicked. I caught the wave. I'm jiving to the groove. Yeah. Something like that. I just lack 50 pages now, and I'm enjoying myself, all in all. More on all that once the book is actually done.

I also went to talk to Dr. Coppinger about the book on Thursday afternoon. I had often noted his sizable collection of Faulkner while sitting in his office staring hungrily at his books, and had always found it odd that The Sound and the Fury was not among the novels on display. Well, as soon as we started talking about it, guess what came out from under his desk (where he apparently keeps it within easy reach). Yeah. And it was full of colored tabs to mark his favorite passages. Very cool.

We talked about why it is so highly acclaimed, what the value of it is, etc. As I said before, more on that later. Then I asked about the rest of Faulkner's stuff. He recommended Light in August and As I Lay Dying as being more "accessible to the reader." And, if I wanted something more difficult ("There's something worse than this?!") his personal favorite is "Absalom, Absalom." Glancing to the side, I noticed that that one wasn't on the shelf either. Hmmm . . .

I was shocked to find that our library actually has every novel ever written by Faulkner. No, really! I'm not making that up! So, that's another *estimates* twenty-ish books tacked onto my ever-growing list of "Things to Read, like, Now."

In other news, this week's play was The Merchant of Venice. Yes, it was supposed to be Romeo and Juliet (for my Shakespeare class, you know), but Batts is, amazingly, even slower than I had anticipated. So we picked another one (I believe Moore suggested it) and Romeo and Juliet will wait a week.

Martinez- Duke of Venice, Prince of Morocco, Prince of Arragon, Lorenzo, Stephano, Leonardo, etc.
Myself- Antonio, Tubal, Balthasar, etc.
Moore- Bassanio
Gallagher- Salanio, Salarino, Salerio, Launcelot Gobbo, Nerissa, Jessica, etc.
Scott- Salanio, Salarino, Salerio, Old Gobbo, etc.
Sharpton- Gratiano, etc.
Scholl- Shylock, Lorenzo
Wilson- Shylock
Sharon- Portia
Anna- Nerissa, Jessica
Ardith- Portia, Nerissa, Jessica

If you were paying any attention at all, you can't help but notice that many of the parts were played by multiple people. This is because, over the course of two nights and two and a half hours, there was much coming and going by certain persons. As such, the female parts got passed around like candy, if you'll pardon the expression. At one point, I came within a few seconds of playing Jessica myself. Also, the characters of Salanio, Salarino, and Salerio were absolutely impossible to keep straight (especially since they seemed to swap roles depending on which edition you were using) and the long and short of that was, if you played one, you played them all.

I, for one, was highly amused by Sharpton's performance as Gratiano (ask him about Russian/Italian mafiosos). Wilson picked up Shylock at the point where he started really showing his true colors in the play, and the effect was chilling . . . at least to me, since he was up in my face a few times . . . with a knife. Gah. Gallagher, of course, played the clown (Launcelot) for all he was worth, very much enjoying a male role. Martinez generally had loads of fun playing a number of jilted suitors . . . I wonder about that, but no matter.

The last scene, as anyone who has read the play knows, is loads of fun to perform, almost impossible to mess up, and teaches a valuable lesson (that women are, amazingly, even more ruthless and conniving than Jews . . . who'da thunk it?). A few of our number, having read the play in high school, were surprised to find that the edition they read had censored some of the more . . . blatant innuendo and the bawdy double-entendres.

This weekend I have much work to do in continued preparation for the month I am already calling "Bloody February" (there is a plethora of good reasons to do so). And I will finish The Sound and the Fury. And I will continue everything else I'm reading. And I will continue all my normal weekend activities. See you on the other side.

Posted by Jared at 09:23 PM | TrackBack

February 04, 2004

The Sound of Fury

So I'm reading The Sound and the Fury, right? And the first 58 pages are absolute murder. But I was expecting that. They're done in "stream of consciousness" and the perspective is that of Benjy, a retarded boy. It's very difficult to tell what is going on. There are something like fifteen very distinct and randomly ordered time periods in this portion (each one years apart from the others, with no indication of what has passed in-between), and you have to figure out for yourself when you've moved from one to the other and back again. At no point are you ever told anything about who the characters are that you are meeting, where they are, when they are, or what relationship they have with each other. You have to figure it out for yourself. To make matters worse, there are characters who have multiple names and characters who share the same name.

It's all very confusing, but I was making a bit of sense out of it, and it was, as I said, only the first 58 pages. Tonight, I picked the book up again to continue. The next perspective is 80 pages of the book, told from the point of view of Quentin, Benjy's older brother. After over 20 pages of Quentin, I reached the following paragraphs (and yes, they're representative of everything so far):

"I asked, but he didn't know whether another one would leave before noon or not because you'd think that interurbans. So the first one was another trolley. I got on. You can feel noon. I wonder if even miners in the bowels of the earth. That's why whistles: because people that sweat, and if just far enough from sweat you wont hear whistles and in eight minutes you should be that far from sweat in Boston. Father said a man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune Father said. A gull on an invisible wire attached through space dragged. You carry the symbol of your frustration through eternity. Then the wings are bigger Father said only who can play a harp.

"I could hear my watch whenever the car stopped, but not often they were already eating Who would play a Eating the business of eating inside of you space too space and time confused Stomach saying noon brain saying eat oclock All right I wonder what time it is what of it. People were getting out. The trolley didn't stop so often now, emptied by eating."

This is immediately after an entire two pages of completely random dialogue with no punctuation, line breaks, or capitalization . . . Not to mention the complete lack of an indication of who is talking, when, where, why, or about what.

What it mean. Faulkner's habit of not. Stars are pretty. Bed is cool until suspense. Crap the what the Pulitzer surprise glory flees.

*nods to Wilson for his contribution to the above paragraph*

So, Faulkner wins a Pulitzer for writing something that would get me an F from any English teacher in the country? What is that?! I don't get it. How is this any good at all? I'm open for suggestions here . . . explain.

Posted by Jared at 11:54 PM | TrackBack

February 02, 2004

The Wisdom of Father Brown

On lie detectors and circulation:

"I've been reading," said Flambeau, "of this new psychometric method they talk about so much, especially in America. You know what I mean; they put a pulsometer on a man's wrist and judge by how his heart goes at the pronunciation of certain words. What do you think of it?"

"I think it very interesting," replied Father Brown; "it reminds me of that interesting idea in the Dark Ages that blood would flow from a corpse if the murderer touched it."

"Do you really mean," demanded his friend, "that you think the two methods equally valuable?"

"I think them equally valueless," replied Brown. "Blood flows, fast or slow, in dead folk or living, for so many more million reasons than we can ever know. Blood will have to flow very funnily; blood will have to flow up the Matterhorn, before I will take it as a sign that I am to shed it."

"The method," remarked the other, "has been guaranteed by some of the greatest American men of science."

"What sentimentalists men of science are!" exclaimed Father Brown, "and how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs? Why, they must be as sentimental as a man who thinks a woman is in love with him if she blushes! That's a test from the circulation of the blood, discovered by the immortal Harvey; and a jolly rotten test, too."

On crime amongst the Irish:

It had happened nearly twenty years before, when he was chaplain to his co-religionists in a prison in Chicago -- where the Irish population displayed a capacity both for crime and penitence which kept him tolerably busy.

On firearms:

"Then I remembered that beyond those ploughed fields he was crossing lay Pilgrim's Pond, for which (you will remember) the convict was keeping his bullet; and I sent my walking-stick flying."

"A brilliant piece of rapid deduction," said Father Brown; "but had he got a gun?"

As Usher stopped abruptly in his walk the priest added apologetically: "I've been told a bullet is not half so useful without it."

On Man:

"You always forget," observed his companion, "that the reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine."

"Why, what do you mean?" asked the detective.

"I mean Man," said Father Brown, "the most unreliable machine I know of. I don't want to be rude; and I don't think you will consider Man to be an offensive or inaccurate description of yourself."

On Sin:

"What do you mean?" demanded the other. "Why should he be innocent of that crime?"

"Why, bless us all!" cried Father Brown in one of his rare moments of animation, "why, because he's guilty of the other crimes! I don't know what you people are made of. You seem to think that all sins are kept together in a bag. You talk as if a miser on Monday were always a spendthrift on Tuesday."

On Atheism:

"You are more of a mystery than all the others," she said desperately; "but I feel there might be a heart in your mystery."

"What we all dread most," said the priest, in a low voice, "is a maze with no centre. That is why atheism is only a nightmare."

Posted by Jared at 03:12 PM | TrackBack

January 31, 2004

More on the Subject of My Supposed "Non-life"

First, I finally finished Lord of Chaos. Yeah. Finally. I've been reading it since, what, October? Yes, it is nearly 1,000 pages long, and yes, I have finished a number of books in-between, and yes, I was excessively busy during various long periods between then and now. But I should most certainly have finished it during Christmas break for certain. Bleah. Anyway, it got a 95 from me. This is almost certainly more than it deserves and without doubt this is more than most people would give it. But I'm not most people, thank goodness. The book did not once fail to lose my interest. Yeah, it was longer than it needed to be, but it had more than enough coolness to keep me reading. And whatever else you have to say about Robert Jordan, the man knows how to write a climactic ending. Wow. That alone probably boosted the book 4 points at least. Ending well is of the utmost importance, of course, to my rating system. Anyway, so now I'm "down" to six books, and hopefully dropping further very soon. I continue to read The Desperate Hours, The Wisdom of Father Brown, and Fantastical Visions II. I started The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Volume One) this week, and it is way cool. It's the kind of thing that I have to actually be awake to read, but very good nonetheless. Also, last Friday night Scott plunks four books of an SF series in my hands and tells me to read them. So I am. The first book (The Callahan Chronicals) is actually a collection of three books, and I'm halfway through the first of those three. And, finally, thanks to friggin' Batts, I have just started The Sound and the Fury. It's high time that one was behind me.

Report on Life with Father . . . It's impossible for a comedy like this not to be fun to read. The cast:

Scholl: Father
Anna: Vinnie (Mother)
Myself: Clarence (oldest son, 17)
Wilson: John (2nd son, 15)
Scott: Whitney (3rd son, 13)
Moore: Harlan (youngest son, 6)
Gallagher: Cousin Cora, Dr. Somers
Ardith: Mary (young friend of Cora), Margaret (the cook), Annie, Delia, Nora, Maggie (maids)
Martinez: The Reverend Dr. Lloyd (Rector of the family church)
Sharpton: Dr. Humphreys

Scott as whiny 13-year old = fun to listen to

Ardith playing six roles, and actually conversing with herself at one point = fun to listen to

Anna and Scholl fighting and bickering like an old married couple = . . . Hold on, we hear that all the time. Nevermind. At least you know they're good at it.

I'm trying not to typecast Gallagher, really I am, but it's hard. He's just so good at that voice. Anyway, good times . . . I thought everyone did well, considering the difficulty of ten people with four scripts during act one, and the difficulty of doing a dry run of this play in general, with all of its stage directions.

Hmmm . . . there's more to talk about, I'm sure, but it can wait. I'm off to do stuff, and then go to bed.

Posted by Jared at 11:04 PM | TrackBack

January 23, 2004

The Shadow Council Players, entering stage left . . .

Our title this evening comes to you courtesy of Ardith. And I say unto you:

Friends, I consider it now my most worthy and sacred duty to inform you all of a blessed spectacle, (which it has been to your utmost disadvantage, and shall be your eternal regret, to have missed) which hath transpired this very evening.

But I'm not going to keep talking like that. Because I don't want to. It all started when Wheeler spent about 4 hours in a classroom with Dr. Batts over the course of a week and a half. And Dr. Batts did speak a multitude of words without meaning, and Wheeler's cup did run over and spill out open the very stones, which did cry out in anguish, and there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Oh, yeah. Said I wasn't going to talk like that. So anyway, he beats us over the head until our vision gets all blurry with the fact that Shakespeare's plays were very decidedly not written to be read, but rather to be performed. I think I've heard this from him in excess of 20 times during various class periods. Then, once we finally begin one of the plays, he assigns all of the reading to be done outside of class . . . by ourselves. My recommendation at this point is that he be summarily executed . . . But he won't be. So my immediate problem remained unsolved: How to not just be stuck re-reading plays I've already read.

Well, of course I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but wasn't sure that it would work out. I waited until Dr. Hood gave us a break in the midst of Honors Shame (thus it has been dubbed by Wilson, and by that name shall it henceforth be known) this evening. At that time I asked Wilson if he was free after class, and if he would be interested in rounding up a few people and doing the first act of Hamlet with me.

He was interested, and lo and behold, who should we meet as we stepped out of the classroom at 10:00 but Moore and Gallagher!

"Aha!" says I to myself. "Fate smiles upon me!" So we collared the both of them and I led them to the multitude of copies of Hamlet which are to be found in the library, and we pawed through them and selected three volumes that looked readable. Then we marched to the front, they checked out their books, and we headed for Longview Hall lobby and dove right in. During the course of the reading we were joined by Scott and Sharon, each of them running by the library for their own copy, and to make a long story short, we have just completed Act III at 12:45.

Devilish good fun. I took the liberty of snagging first pick of which part(s) to play, since I'm kind of doing this for class, and the other roles fell as we saw fit. Everyone, of course, picked up bit parts here and there. I played Horatio and Polonius. Gallagher played Laertes, Guildenstern, and . . . Queen Gertrude. Wilson played King Claudius, and the "First Player" . . . and Ophelia briefly, until Sharon arrived. Scott played Rosencratz. And Moore ended up as Hamlet, which was good, since Sharon showed up to play Ophelia.

The general award of the night goes to Gallagher for his performance as the Queen. If you've seen Life of Brian, he sounded like Brian's mother . . . like, exactly. It was oh, so good. I was also particularly fond of Wilson's speeches before Hamlet as the Player. I myself am particularly fond of Polonius' part, especially in Act II and I really threw myself into it and had a lot of fun with it.

And so, as I say, we seem to have hit upon rather a good thing here. My program for this season, as set forth by the syllabus, is as follows:


Romeo and Juliet

King Lear

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Henry IV, Part One

The Taming of the Shrew

Add to that whatever other random play(s) we wish to throw in, if we're of a mind to do so, and . . . yay. I am pleased.

Now I need to pull out all the freaking random quotes from Act I for class tomorrow. Plus do my reading for English Lit II (only six pages) and the reading for Creation. *sigh*

Posted by Jared at 01:25 AM | TrackBack

January 22, 2004

Reading update

Dunno if anyone reads these or cares, but they're too much fine to write, so I continue.

Oroonoko got finished, like, a few days ago, and I finally got that crazy huge book out of my backpack so it can reside in a prominent place on my shelf. And by "prominent place" I mean that empty spot I finally found after much anguished searching. Oroonoko got a 56, which I generally classify as being right there on the fine line between a book that is merely fair, and one that is simply bad. In other words, a big, boring ho-hum. At best it was a fairly sordid little tale on a fairly common theme.

Boy meets girl, grandfather steals girl from boy, boy has sex with girl anyway, grandfather sells girl into slavery, boy goes off to war and feels better, boy captures many slaves in battle and gets tricked into slavery when trying to sell them, boy winds up on same plantation as girl, boy and girl live happily ever after . . . Until boy and girl decide that junior will not grow up as a slave, attempt to escape, fail, boy kills girl and unborn child to prevent recapture, boy is recaptured and has genitals, nose, ears, and arms cut off as he stoically smokes a pipe, and is finally killed. Yeah, there was more to it than that, but not very much more.

Plus, Aphra Behn had a number of very annoying writing habits, the worst of which was never using the word "them" and only using "'em" instead. That got old fast. And then there was the overall writing style, about which I have absolutely no complaints. It was very familiar, I've read numerous novels written in just the same way, I can deal with that. Decent writing with bad habits thrown in and a really crappy story . . . 56 is just about the best I can do for you. It does claim to be a true story, by the way, and I think it may be mostly or at least partially true, even though that was a very common claim to make about one's novel. This one actually has names, dates, and places that exist . . . which was not quite so common. (There is that annoying bad habit in other works, for instance those of Poe, of blanking out part of the date, or a pertinent name or location, to maintain the illusion of truth without saying something patently false.)

So, the five book cycle continues . . . when one goes out, another one flows in. With Oroonoko out of the way, I have begun Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, my most ambitious project to date. Previously that honor went to Les Miserables with its 1400+ page count (large pages, small print and margins, thick reading). Decline and Fall consists of three volumes, each approaching 1,000 pages. Don't expect a review of the entirety by next week, is what I'm telling you here. This could very well turn into a year-long thing, if I'm lucky enough to be that quick.

My lovely Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare finally arrived today, and I'll be diving back into that as soon as I finish another book, which will be soon. Also waiting in the wings . . . in fact, it just crashed right through the wings . . . Hold on. *backs up* I was planning on picking up All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams as my next book, but it will now be the book after my next book, due to Dr. Batts pissing me off today in Shakespeare. The class as a whole was exruciatingly painful today, so I just haven't got the heart to go into full detail here. (For one thing, he spent ten minutes+ carefully explaining the difference between a playwright, a director, and an actor . . .) However, as he was explaining the disadvantages of drama as opposed to prose fiction, we were talking about the limited ability to get inside the character's head. As an example (we must back up everything with an example, or it won't stick) he cited the first part of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner.

I haven't read it, or anything by Faulkner, although naturally I am familiar with it. I probably still wouldn't have said anything, read or not read, but that isn't the point. Our class was unfortunate enough to not have anyone who had read the thing. So we got berated for lacking in the area of "contemporary literary context" as if we should have known that one cannot study Shakespeare properly without having read Faulkner. I didn't take very kindly to this notion . . . at all. However, I decided that I'm tired of not having read anything by Faulkner anyway. I mean, he's one of the greats, and he's from the South. I should have picked him up years ago. If I really get into it, I'll drop everything else and complete it over the weekend, but that probably won't happen.

So, now we're finally actually reading Hamlet itself, although we're apparently reading it all outside of class, which upsets me to no end. That notwithstanding, we need to finish Act I by Friday (no problem, especially since he won't be there and we'll be watching a movie . . . there is a God) and Act II by Monday. Even though I have read Hamlet three times and studied it in all the usual ways, the cunning devil has still managed to create a worksheet that is going to give me fits. It has two columns at the top and the rest is totally blank. One column says: "Lines from Hamlet (write out lines and note Act, Scene, and line numbers)" and the other column says: "Speaker and Situation in which lines are spoken." And I had better be damn well certain that I pick the quotes that he would pick. I'm going to kill that man.

Posted by Jared at 01:37 AM | TrackBack

January 15, 2004

Shotgun Postings

Well, I'm trying to do my homework for Shakespeare (which a certain someone . . . who has requested anonymity . . . has already dubbed "Batts' guano") but when one is sitting at a library computer, with Wilson and Ardith on either side, and a host of whiny complaints in the comment section of the only post on your blog . . . Work will not get done. And so I post.

It really has been a busy week, so I find myself fully justified in not having posted yet. There was a nap that needed taking this afternoon, for instance. And I really didn't want to post on that awful black and white, because it depressed me, you see.

A brief look at my class schedule: Tuesdays and Thursdays are all about History. 9:30 sees me trying to stay awake in Kubricht's Western Civ class, 12:00 sees me glorying in the only window seat in Johnson's American History class. Thursdays bring further joy with Dr. Renate Hood's Social Backgrounds to the New Testament, which I just got out of. We are off to an excellent start, spending the last hour of class watching a PBS special on the Roman empire . . . complete with selections from the poetry of Ovid against a backdrop of "Classical" porn. The truly difficult thing, in these cases, is to know just what expression to have on your face as you view this with three females sitting behind you . . . But there it is.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are all about Literature, with English Lit II just after chapel and Shakespeare just after lunch. Dr. Watson still rocks, and I'm fairly certain that I'll enjoy this class even more than last semester, if that is possible. We're beginning the semester with William Blake, which I also have to read and journal on tonight. *grumbles at Ardith and Wilson* Dr. Watson's brief outline of the course went something like this:

Romantic Period
Victorian Era
20th Century

("And all of this is leading up to the culminating study of one man, one author." He tells us, stepping forward again to write. I'm craning my neck, trying to see around him, when at last he steps back and I see . . .)

Douglas Adams

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our final class session this semester will be devoted entirely to Douglas Adams, beloved author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the rest of the five-book Hitchhiker Trilogy. Dr. Watson truly is The Man.

Dr. Batts, on the other hand . . . *sigh* And no, it isn't too early to tell. I already, as mentioned above, have two rather putrid assignments for his class. Both involving standard ingestion and regurgitation which must be done by hand. I haven't had a real handwritten assignment outside of math courses since high school. Grrr . . . I'll try to liven things up with a good conspiracy theory or something. Shakespeare was gay, right?

Fridays involve a Creation vs. Evolution seminar which will examine the various theories held by Christians on the subject. The teacher is an adherent of Old Earth theory, I believe, so it will be an interesting class, I'm sure.

The only other interesting thing, for me, to write about at this juncture is book news. I did complete Master and Commander at about 1:00 in the morning on Saturday night. And it was worth only four hours of sleep. I gave it a very solid 96. Such a grand balance between historical fact, sweeping naval action sequences, "philosophizing," and laugh-out-loud humor . . . The characters are wonderful, especially Dr. Maturin, of course. Jack was simply not done properly in the movie version, but I can't see Russell Crowe playing the real Jack Aubrey at all, in any case. I love the character in the movie, too, but it isn't the same character at all, really. That, however, is neither here nor there. The book was great and I can't wait to get my hands on the next installment. Except that I can. And I will. There's too much to read . . .

At the moment we have the following:

Within mere pages of finishing Oroonoko . . . still, review forthcoming soon.

Within mere chapters of finishing Lord of Chaos . . . still, see above.

Just began The Desperate Hours, a vintage 50s thriller about three escaped convicts holing up in a middle-class family's home in Suburbia while they await the "dame" with the "dough." Stereotypes abound, hilarity ensues. Well, not really hilarity, but I'm getting a kick out of it. It isn't supposed to be funny. It's actually one of my favorite suspense movies, starring Humphrey Bogart himself as the lead "bad man." Great stuff.

Continuing were I left off last semester I have picked up The Wisdom of Father Brown, yet another collection of short mysteries. I know it will be excellent.

And, finally, I am reading a privately published anthology of ten fantasy short stories: Fantastic Visions II. It contains a story by my former roommate, who placed in a writing contest on the internet. Some of them look quite good, and I'm sure his will be excellent, having previously read some of what he has to offer.

That's about it for my "pleasure reading" at the moment. It looks like I'll have a steady cycle of five books at once going all semester, and two of the current books will soon be out of the way. I'll also have a heavy load of reading for class, and much of that will be enjoyable. And now I'm going to finish that other internet assignment before the library shuts down entirely. Ha.

Posted by Jared at 11:28 PM | TrackBack

January 07, 2004

Paradise Lost: An Insomniac's Perspective

As mentioned elsewhere, I'm still posting here until I get back to LeTourneau . . . for reasons also mentioned elsewhere.

It is now 4:00 in the morning. I went to bed approximately five and a half hours ago, and I turned the light out about 2 hours ago. After tossing and turning for nearly an hour and a half, I decided I was getting bored of that and I came in here, surfed around, am still not tired, and have decided to forge ahead with the post I had planned for when I got up later.

As far as I know at this point, this is all gonna be about stuff I'm reading. Just so you know. I finished Paradise Lost at about 12:30, which is rather a good time to finish a book, in my opinion (perhaps a trifle early), and loved it. It got a 97 for being really good stuff. Yes, as previously suspected there is a reason people are still reading it after 325+ years. I'm rather proud to be one of those people, incidentally.

I will now begin the other yet-to-be-completed classic from Norton that was sadly neglected during the general rush of November. Oroonoko, or The Royal Slave by Aphra Behn has two shots at prestige. First, it has at least a semi-legitimate claim to the position of first English novel, having been published a mere 14 years after the definitive edition of Milton's epic. And written by a woman, no less . . . Of course, the novel "novel" field apparently was at first almost solely dominated by women, but that is neither here nor there. Second, it could almost be called England's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." At the very least, it reportedly did for blacks what "Black Beauty" did for horses, if you'll pardon the comparison.

Milton has some very . . . interesting doctrinal opinions, and I really enjoyed the passages on free will and foreknowledge vs. predestination. But more than anything, I love the fact that he wrote 200 pages covering the first two chapters of Genesis. The question I kept asking myself was, "How can there be this much left? He's almost done with the story!" I really enjoyed the meat he put onto the bare bones of the Biblical account. Right, wrong or indifferent, it's a literary masterpiece and it really made the story come alive for me in a new way.

As anyone who is at all familiar with the work knows, Satan is one of the more intriguing characters. He is tragic, he is somewhat noble, he is full of courage and valour and mighty deeds. In short, he is a classic epic hero . . . but he's the bad guy. Because it doesn't matter how courageous or noble you are in fighting for your cause if it's the wrong cause. Satan's moments of private regret and remorse after the fall fascinated me, as did the debate between Hell's mightiest denizens over the best course of action to take after their plunge from Heaven. I liked Milton's explanation of Eve's temptation. Satan possesses the serpent, of course, and then convinces Eve that, while he was formerly a dumb beast, something called him to eat from the tree, and the result was the ability to speak and reason. And of course, he isn't dead, now is he? I loved the part right before this as well, where Satan in the form of the serpent approaches Eve and is dumbstruck by her grace and beauty, unable to move for a few moments as he gazes in awe, "of enmity disarmed, of guile, of hate, of envy, of revenge." In the end the only thing that gets him moving again is the bitter realization that it is precisely this Paradise that he is now shut out of forever.

As a quick side note, there was a very striking thing in the midst of the archangel Raphael's description of the Creation to Adam. Here is how he describes the creation of the animals:

"The sixth, and of creation last arose
With evening harps and [morning], when God said,
'Let th' earth bring forth soul living in her kind,
Cattle and creeping things, and beast of the earth,
Each in their kind.' The earth obeyed, and straight
Op'ning her fertile womb [brought forth] at a birth
Innumerous living creatures, perfect forms,
Limbed and full grown: out of the ground up rose
As from his lair the wild beast where he [dwells]
In forest wild, in thicket, brake, or den;
Among the trees in pairs they rose, they walked:
The cattle in the fields and meadows green:
Those rare and solitary, these in flocks
Pasturing at once, and in broad herds upsprung.
The grassy [mounds of earth] now calved, now half appeared
The tawny lion, pawing to get free
His hinder parts, then springs as broke from bonds,
And rampant shakes his [streaked] mane; the [lynx],
The [leopard], and the tiger, as the mole
Rising, the crumbled earth above them threw
In hillocks; the swift stag from under ground
Bore up his branching head: scarce from his mold
[elephant] biggest born of Earth upheaved
His vastness: . . ."

Ummm . . . "The Magician's Nephew," anyone? Moving on . . .

The paradox of the thing as that, after spending 200 pages on the first two chapters of Genesis, Milton spends the final 20 summarizing the rest of the Bible and church history up to his own time and beyond to the new Heaven and new earth of Revelation. I'm glad he did, though . . . Glad he covered those things, and glad he did it in brief. At the rate he was going . . . I don't even want to think about it. The end of the thing was the best, though, hitting just the right note. Because Adam contritely accepts God's judgment of his sin as just, Michael, sent to escort him from the garden, is granted the ability to show him the entire future of mankind in a vision (Milton's excuse to summarize what I mentioned above), so that Adam will not be plunged into total despair at his sad fate. As a result, he leaves in a state of hopeful melancholy, allowing the work to avoid ending on a total downer.

"Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand'ring steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way."

And it's over . . . Great ending. This brings me to my final point. As I read the thing, the key parts seemed to me to be so vividly described, that I could see them playing in my mind like a movie. This epic needs to be a movie. It would be fantastic. One good way to do this would be "crazy special effects blockbuster" with good acting . . . not crazy special effects like The Matrix Revolutions, but crazy like Lord of the Rings (and I'm glad to now have that distinction available). These would be necessary to do justice to such scenes as the massive war in Heaven, complete with millions of swarming combatants locked in semi-mortal (everyone who fights feels the pain of their wounds, but they heal immediately because no one can die) duels with swords and spears and surrounded by the cannon fire from the terrible weapons of war that ingenuity of the fallen angels has created. The charge of the Son in his golden chariot, levelling every single enemy and casting them forth with a single, swift stroke. Millions of fallen angels lying facedown in the burning lake of Hell, stunned, unable to grasp their overwhelming defeat. The following reaction to a motivational speech by Satan:

"He spake: and to confirm his words, out flew
Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs
Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze
Far round illumined Hell: highly they raged
Against the Highest, and fierce with grasped arms
Clashed on their sounding shields the din of war,
Hurling defiance toward the vault of Heav'n."

Satan bulldozing his way through the depths of Chaos and Night after bursting forth from the massive, nine-fold gates of Hell (three of which are adamantium, incidentally). All of these things and more would require some major technical wizardry. But aside from that, the quiet scenes are, obviously, the most affecting. They would require superlative actors . . . I can see it all now. Even that very final scene has a certain cinematic quality to it. Anyway, if you had the right talent behind the project, it might make a tolerably good musical as well . . .

Oh, and before you go dashing off to, in case you haven't yet, there are, in fact, no fewer than eleven movies with the title "Paradise Lost." However, none of them . . . actually . . . are . . . Paradise Lost. Somehow. The only interesting looking one was made in 1911 by D. W. Griffith. *evil smirk* The rest appear to be either romantic dramas concerning impossible loves (read: "total crap"), or ecological documentaries detailing the destruction of the rainforest and other such things (read: "more total crap"). In short, Milton's title has been raped . . . a lot. And if anyone had the guts and the skill to undertake the task, Paradise Lost would be a hell of a movie (pun intended).

A quick paragraph for you Wheel of Time fans out there . . . I've read a lot of opinions on this series. And if you wanna stick yours in the comments, I'd love to hear them. I've heard people say all the books suck after number three, or number five, or even number nine . . . I've heard people say that 5-8 suck, or 5-9, or 6-8, etc. Anyway, I'm almost done with book six, and I'm not seeing it yet. But I'll wait until I'm done to comment more fully. I just want to say that, for my money, the scene where Mat bursts in on Egwene and co. after she has been raised Amyrlin Seat, rips off her stole of office, and starts throwing around orders and giving instructions so he can get them out of "this mess" is High Comedy. That's the funniest thing I've read this month . . .

And, finally, I was reading along peacefully in Master and Commander when I came upon a brief passage that struck me. I read it over about five times and decided that it was a very good statement of my own "political position," if you can even apply that term to what I've got. Dr. Stephen Maturin is conversing with Lt. James Dillon, both former members of an Irish organization of rather revolutionary leanings that blew up in everyones' faces. (You'll have to supply your own historical context . . . if you can't, then you probably shouldn't be reading this.)

Maturin: With the revolution in France gone to pure loss I was already chilled beyond expression. And now, with what I saw in '98, on both sides, the wicked folly and the wicked brute cruelty, I have had such a sickening of men in masses, and of causes, that I would not cross this room to reform parliament or prevent the union or bring about the millenium. I speak only for myself, mind - it is my own truth alone - but man as part of a movement or a crowd is indifferent to me. He is inhuman. And I have nothing to do with nations, or nationalism. The only feelings I have - for what they are - are for men as individuals; my loyalties, such as they may be, are to private persons alone.

Dillon: Patriotism will not do?

Maturin: My dear creature, I have done with all debate. But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.

I don't pretend to be any more consistent in this attitude than Maturin himself, you understand. Everyone knows that I'll argue nearly anything on an intellectual level, and have a heck of a lot of fun doing it, too. I can even be convinced to change my mind. But when people start getting stubborn and emotional about their petty opinions and causes, as if what they think (whether right or wrong) will actually effect anything without them attaining some high government office or something, that's when I pretty much check out. I have bigger fish to fry. Wait, no, I take that back . . . it isn't quite true. My fish are decidedly smaller, however, I do have my own fish to fry.

And to a large (frighteningly large to some, I suppose) extent, that goes for religion too. So there.

Well, it's almost 6:00 now . . . yeah, still in the morning. It's been a long post and there were a few interruptions. I went outside to investigate a strange racket the dog was making, and my mom did too, and I got berated for still being up . . . Just general stuff. I'll be napping a lot today, but I'm not going to bed now for sure. This will almost certainly be my only chance to see the brothers off to school, since they leave at the unholy hour of 6:50. I'll probably have a meeting or two, as well. I'm supposed to talk to the former math teacher (now the school accountant . . . frightening, but fitting), and possibly the current one as well. My dad is supposed to get me a copy of the Big Test so I can edit it if necessary. He has that power, and he'll give it to me. And I have the standard 3:30 to 5:00 session this afternoon as well. Plus lots of reading to do inbetween.

This day is looking really long . . . if it's as long as this post I may not live through it. Farewell.

Posted by Jared at 05:55 AM | TrackBack

January 06, 2004

Latest Metaphor: Dumb as the Guatemalan School System

The following post could not be submitted last night due to Blogger deciding that it had been under a few hours of routine maintenance as of November 12th. *sigh* Anyway, without further ado:

No pressure. None at all. I just wanted you all to know that. I am not currently under any pressure or stress whatsoever. I mean, it's not like I have less than a week to teach five mathematically illiterate middle schoolers everything I know about Algebra and Algebra II, right? And it's not like if they fail the test that's coming on Monday, they'll be missing the next entire year of school (effectively putting them two years farther behind than they already are), right? Wrong. That's exactly what's going on. And it sucks. Last year 50 kids failed math (not all from the orphanage, obviously) and had to take "summer school" math, whatever they call it. When the test rolled around to see if they were back on track or not, we had a 12% pass rate.

Oh, yeah . . . and the two 7th graders are both 16 years old. And two of the 8th graders are 17, one is 18. If the 18 year old fails this test, she'll be 21 by the time she gets out of the 9th grade, provided she doesn't fail anymore classes between now and then. Basically, if they fail this math class, they fail the whole grade, and they have to retake everything. The test is, as I said, on Monday, but they get two retakes. One is in February, one is in March . . . but if they have to retake in February, the schoolyear will already have marched too far along without them and they'll have to sit out the year. Of course, if they fail all three, they'll be retaking the same grade starting next January, resulting in the loss of two years that I mentioned earlier. The system sucks, but no one seems to notice. I can't do anything about it, having no time or influence, and I can't seem to get anyone else to do anything about it, either.

My dad would do something, but math isn't his strong point, and he just doesn't get what's going on. Plus he's always running in all directions starting at 5:00 in the morning, so he just can't. Besides, the things that really need to be fixed go a lot deeper than our school. This boggles my mind, but the school is one of the best in the entire city, and possibly in the country. It's all the government's fault . . .

Anyway, as to other things, I finished that Star Wars book today. Yay. It was fair. I gave it a 79. It had some good action and some decent twists, but it was a fairly weak end to the trilogy and the last 40 pages seemed unnecessarily boring as things wound down. But whatever . . .

I wanted to include this quote in my last post, but I forgot. It's from Paradise Lost, and I thought it was interesting. Eve's, and subsequently Adam's, downfall came after she had suggested that she and Adam should spend the day working in different areas of the garden, even though an angel has just warned them of Satan's presence. When Adam reminds her of this, her argument is that even if Satan does show up, their faith is worthless anyway if it can't stand up to a little temptation. After all the Fall, Adam and Eve are sitting around berating themselves and each other, and Adam says:

Let none henceforth seek needless cause to [prove]
The Faith they owe; when earnestly they seek
Such proof, conclude, they then begin to fail.

I thought that was . . . interesting. Just like the rest of the book, in fact . . .

But anyway, I just realized that I left it and Lord of Chaos in my parents' room and they're both asleep already, so . . . suck. I'll just have to read Master and Commander for the next three hours or so. Oh, well . . . at least that's the one I most urgently need to finish. Incidentally, it is quite excellent so far. I can hardly believe when it was written . . . it almost seems to have been written 150+ years earlier. I don't know of any other historical novels that have effectively pulled that off.

Posted by Jared at 10:05 AM | TrackBack

November 24, 2003

The Week That Rocked

Twelve days since I made a substantial post. Bleah. The longer I put it off, the more there is to write. Of course, it's not like this is some kind of chore, but it takes time. But I have no time to digress . . . ummm . . . more than I normally digress.

I finished War in Heaven . . . obviously, I kind of had to. It was really great, but not quite as good as Many Dimensions, I thought. That's purely a personal preference concerning subject matter, though. I wouldn't recommend one over the other. I was pleased to discover that the LeTourneau library has a copy of All Hallow's Eve. Seriously, I'm not making that up. I'll definitely have to look into this situation at a later date, when my reading slate is a little bit cleaner. I have moved on now to Descent into Hell, and since I'm just that slow these days (I'll elaborate in a bit) I am now truly reading three books related to Hell.

On Sunday night . . . and by Sunday night, for clarity, I mean last Sunday night (we're starting at the beginning here), I went to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. I and, I believe, the rest of us who were there, were quite "wowed" by the quality of this movie. It was most excellent in just about every respect. I'd go into deeper detail, but I've hashed through it so thoroughly so many times with people since that . . . I'd rather not write it all down at this point. I meant to write a complete review a week ago, but I was too busy and it didn't happen. In any case, it was good, well-acted, well-paced, generally worthwhile, etc. Go see it. It's strange. I never actually went to a movie in this town at all during my first year (barring The Two Towers in January, and that doesn't really count) and then suddenly I go to four movies in a two week span. Odd.

Monday was spent finishing War in Heaven and writing my reading summary for it. These activities were not equally proportioned at all. I finished the book approximately 50 minutes before class, and then did the summary. I finished printing out and stapling my 2nd draft at the moment when Michael walked into the computer lab to get me. I rode with him to Dr. Olson's house (we had class there, for the second time this semester). The atmosphere is mostly very conducive to the class in general. The main problem is focus and getting everyone together. We didn't start until about 45 minutes late, and ended up running 20 minutes over. Dr. Olson's dogs were . . . less than well-behaved this time around, periodically banging loudly on the door of the room they were in (which happened to be less than 10 feet away from me). Aside from this, it was a fun class. Of course, I ended up getting back to my room after 11:00. And I had genre reports to work on for Bib Lit and a speech to write for the next day.

Wilson helped me brainstorm a topic and I got to work on that. I had hoped to finish the genre reports in time to send them in to Owlet, because it's worth an extra quiz grade to do so. However, as the night wore on and the thing refused to progress with any sort of speed, it became apparent that this would not be taking place. Long story short, I stayed up all night.

The next day wasn't anywhere near as fun as my last all-nighter, not by half. Not enough caffeine, you see. I zonked in Woodring's class, and fully expected to zonk in Kubricht's. Fortunately, he was showing a video. Even more fortunately, he failed to bring the right video, realized that he'd actually thrown away the right video, and cancelled class. So I got off easy on that one. Speech, of course, was a breeze. Go in, sit through speeches, make your speech, leave. Yeah, I got picked on to do mine . . . no lucky breaks for me, yet again. Payton sure made up for that first speech where I actually got to go last. Which sucks because that was the only one where I was fully prepared to go first.

Anyway, this was a special occasion speech, and I gave a before-dinner address to the 7th Annual Gulf Coast Purity League Book Roast and Fish Fry. I, for one, was quite entertained, and I think my classmates were as well, generally. I brought along several books to "burn" and pulled them out to show everyone. I had the Harry Potter series ("I know I burned them last year, but I figured I'd just go ahead and do it again."), a couple of Dungeons and Dragons books that I bummed off someone, a Stephen King book, Dante's Inferno, Lord of Chaos (Wheel of Time, book 6 by Robert Jordan . . . the title was the main thing, and the fact that I happened to have it in my pocket), and the Complete Works of Shakespeare. That last one may sound a little odd, but while doing "research" the night before I discovered that it had met that doom at a few church book burnings in recent months, so it passed.

After that I went over to Best Buy with Scholl and Uncle Doug in my new truck, my first official use of it really, to get myself a copy of The Two Towers: Extended Edition (43 minutes of extra scenes . . . oh, yeah!). And, of course, since we were in the area we stopped by Books-a-Million to check out the scene. I was tempted to buy a few things, but I have too much to read as it is.

We returned to my room and Martinez and Wilson showed up as we watched through most of the new stuff. We broke for supper halfway through, and Moore joined us for the second half. It was all kinds of fun, and there are so many great new scenes! I won't go into it here, there's no point. If you haven't seen them yet, you get a hearty reprimand from me, and . . . you should go see them now . . . or something. By the time we finished, it was about 7:00. Everybody left, my computer screen started getting really blurry, and I decided that my bed was . . . looking . . . particularly . . . zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Yeah, I went to bed at about 7:30, so I got 13 hours of sleep. Crazy. And lucky as well, because I ended up pulling another all-nighter on Wednesday in order to finish those dang-blasted genre reports. Bleah. All kinds of bleah. I got some other stuff done in there, too.

So, Thursday wasn't any more fun that Tuesday. The only real difference was that I didn't have to give a speech, and I didn't get to skip Western Civ. I crashed at about 9:00 and slept through chapel on Friday, so I got 14 hours of sleep there . . . all in all my average for the week was better than it has been many times in the past. That's really sad.

I spent a sizable portion of Friday playing Freedom Force, a really fun computer game (the first I've played in a couple of months, too) wherein you take control of a team of up to four superheroes. The style of play is similar to Baldur's Gate . . . squad-based, real-time strategy that you can pause whenever to issue orders to your guys, with a heavy role-playing element in terms of advancing your heroes, and figuring damage, etc. It's very retro, done in 60's comics style . . . even if you've only ever watched the old Batman TV show, this game will crack you up with how dead on it is. Very well done voice acting, perfectly melodramatic and so on. The narrator is especially good. And the gameplay is just awesome . . . so many cool powers, so many cool heroes, so little time!

Friday night was the usual (Bible study), Saturday was the usual for the most part. I went to Waffle Shoppe with the crew at 1:00 in the morning, and that was fun. Randomly going out and eating pancakes with a bunch of people at all hours is the very essence of college life. And they were really good pancakes, too (at only $1.79 for 10!). Sunday afternoon was spent finishing my paper so people could hack at it. It still needs more hacks, but there was a bit of commentary forthcoming this evening. Of course the big activity was a supper of sandwiches, chips and Oreos in preparation for the full showing of The Two Towers on the big screen in Barry Auditorium. Four hours is a truly epic amount of time to spend watching a movie . . . it was loads of fun. "He was twitching because he's got mah axe buried in his nervous system!" Classic.

Jeepers! It's after 2:00! I'm not doing anything like what I did last week, no way, no how. I'm going to bed. I need to continue to catch up on sleep, I have a lot of driving to do on Wednesday. Uncle Doug and I will traveling to Lubbock to visit my family (extended, not immediate) for Thanksgiving Break. Should be fun . . . it will be interesting at the very least. Good night, y'all.

Posted by Jared at 02:07 AM | TrackBack

November 12, 2003

"Wheeler in Hell," or "Charles Williams is the Man!"

Wilfred Bohun: "How do you know all this? Are you a devil?"

Father Brown: "I am a man, and therefore have all devils in my heart."

That quote has nothing to do with anything. It just struck me, so it's there. In other book-related news:

I finished Many Dimensions earlier this week. What an incredible book . . . I only have to read two of the novels from The Charles Williams Reader, but I'll certainly be reading all three. As far as the premise of the book goes, has a pretty good summary:

"Imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark set in 20th-century London, and then imagine it written by a man steeped not in Hollywood movies but in Dante and the things of the spirit, and you might begin to get a picture of Charles Williams's novel Many Dimensions. The plot turns on the discovery of the magical Stone of Solomon, through which one can move at will through space, time, and thought. Those who think they can manipulate the stone to serve their own ends, however, find to their horror that, as Jesus once ironically said, "they have their reward." While the story clearly deals with the extraordinary, through his humorous and loving depiction of his British characters Williams more deeply shows us the spiritual reality that lies inside the ordinary."

Williams requires that his readers be very well-read if they want to understand all of the layers of his work. I'm not, in all probability, well-read enough to catch everything, but the most important (and most humorous) references he makes are chiefly Biblical. The final piece of dialogue requires a familiarity with Ecclesiastes, for instance. The book was a very fun and reasonably easy read for the first 240 pages or so. I had to slow down quite a bit for the last thirty pages. This was not because of any decrease in quality, quite the opposite, rather I found it necessary to read slowly, and re-read a few passages in order to fully understand everything that was taking place.

Random quote that made me laugh: "'I'm not going to let that woman out of my sight,' Sheldrake said. 'Where she goes I go.'
'Her people shall be thy people and her gods thy gods,' Oliver murmured. 'Sudden conversion of a millionaire. The call of the old home. Way down on the Swanee River. O Dixie, my Dixie, our fearful trip is done.'
'O, go to the devil!'" *The greedy millionaire is merely pursuing his own gain, but Oliver hilariously finishes his sentence with a quote from Ruth and then launches into a hymn, twisting the meaning in an entirely different direction. The millionaire is not amused.*

Random quote that made me stop and think: "He said, in a voice shaken beyond his wont, 'Do you know what you must do?'
She looked at him with a docile content. 'I have nothing at all to do,' she said, and the Hajji cried suddenly aloud, 'Blessed for ever be the Resignation of the elect.'" *A shocking, arresting, impossible-to-ignore Calvinistic reference, which I hadn't expected at all, and coming from a Muslim fanatic, which I expected even less.*

My one word review: "Transcendent."

I have begun (and am now a good way into) the second book I am reading by Williams: War in Heaven. It's a modern-day Grail quest (or Graal, as Williams spells it). It's quite good so far. The guy wrote deep Indiana Jones stories. Only he did it first, and he did it better.

A thought occured to me last night. I am currently reading seven books. That may seem a bit ridiculous to some of you. It seems ridiculous enough to me. I didn't plan it that way, it has simply happened. I have been unable to put off the reading of certain books, and I have been unable to clear out some the old books fast enough to make room for the new. I hope to have wittled it down by at least one over the course of the weekend.

The thing that struck me, though, was the fact that of the books I am reading, three of them are for the moment (or soon will be) chiefly concerned with Hell. I am in the midst of Dante's Inferno (yes, still) crawling desperately through the Malebolges (the 8th level of Hell, reserved for the fraudulent and the malicious). At the same time I am working my way through Milton's Paradise Lost. I've just begun that one fairly recently. At the moment, Satan (the star of the show, in many ways) is rallying his troops in the depths of Hell after they have been hurled down from Heaven. And, as soon as I finish War in Heaven (which needs to be done by Monday), I'll be reading Williams's Descent into Hell. The Hell in that novel is mostly figurative, but no less real or terrifying.

So, half of the books I'm reading are set in Hell, and all of those happen to be books I'm reading in relation to schoolwork (though not for any specific class . . . I'm going beyond the requirements in each case). I wonder what I ought to do to balance out the inordinate amount of time I'm spending on the wrong side of the theological tracks. Reading Father Brown mysteries helps, certainly. And racing pell-mell through the Bible in a semester for Bib Lit should lend some extra weight to the proper side, I suppose. Besides, none of the Hell books is particularly obsessed with Hell, as I'm sure you'll recognize. We'll just have to see that I don't get obsessed with it due to the heavy dosage . . . Meanwhile, I'm having loads of fun and reading loads of good books. And on that note, I think I'll go read some more, because I have lots to do. Farewell for now.

Posted by Jared at 02:30 PM | TrackBack

October 13, 2003

Long Live the South!

For someone of Southern heritage and persuasion (shut up, Scholl) who has grown up steeped in something of a golden, pristine view of Southern history and culture (wait for a minute until I can quantify that statement) it is easy to view both the South and its history with a large amount of nostalgia. Yeah. Nostalgia for something I never really saw or experienced. It is something that I am vaguely aware of from time spent in Texas and from even more time immersed in things of which I will speak in a moment.

Now, as a student of history, I am fully aware (somewhere in the back of my mind) of all the wrong that has happened in this area of the country. Nobody's perfect . . . but I'm not even going to brush it off by attempting to justify it (that way, or any other way). No, what I'm talking about here is the view provided to me by literature. No other area of American literature is quite as replete with such colorful characters, such rich pageantry, or . . . words fail me at 2:00 in the morning, if you're going to get my point, you'll have already gotten it. I've lived in the culture, so I know it's real. I've read all about its lighter side, so I want to experience more of it.

Just to name a few pertinent authors: Mark Twain, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, Willie Morris, and John Grisham.

"To Kill a Mockingbird" is still a book that I can sit down with randomly, and read through without moving. "Tom Sawyer" is a perennial favorite which I have always loved. "Gone With the Wind" is, to my mind, the quintessential historical fiction novel . . . A daunting, but worthwhile read. Someday, I'll go back and read it two or three more times, I'm sure. Moving into the realm of lesser known and more recent work: "Taps" is all about pure, untainted memories of growing up in Mississippi in the 1950's. "A Painted House" really resonates with me because it's pretty much about my family's last few generations. Under different circumstances, I could be the main character. My dad and grandad are both featured in the book, to some degree. I had the opportunity to discuss it with them this summer after they had both read it, and that particular assessment stands.

Where am I going with all of this? I attempt merely to paint a picture of the Fantasy South I'm used to visiting in order to pave the way for what is to come. A striking example of the darker side of Southern literature and history has recently forced itself upon my attention in the form of a novel written in 1905 by the Reverend Thomas Dixon. Naturally I am fascinated by this concept and anxious to read said novel based largely on its historical and cultural value (not concerning the period which it seeks to portray, but rather of the period during which it was written), with some attention to its literary value (being a student of that discipline as well). And of course when something fascinates me it winds up on here in some form or another. The integration of a different facet into one's perspective, especially if it is an element of realism introduced into an idealized semi-Utopian vision, can only grant a more accurate and complete picture of the truth.

I'll keep my pretty fiction of an innocent South certainly, with that special, half-regretful longing usually connected with early childhood (since it was, after all, during my childhood that these visions formed in my imagination), but I would be remiss (both as a person, and as a student of history) if I peckishly pushed aside anything which might lend to the dream something of the reality simply because I feared to taint it. With this disclaimer in place (and with an apology for the extremely disjointed nature of this post):

Check it out.

Your comments are welcome, as always . . . And I love discussions about this, so if you are one of those lucky enough to have Personal Access to me, I won't shy away from a face-to-face, either.

Posted by Jared at 01:11 AM | TrackBack

September 24, 2003

Screwed-up Women

"So, the guy jumps down off of his camel, picks it up, and throws it at the charging enemies!" -Jared, talking about the ridiculous fantasy book he just finished.

The Halfling's Gem, third in the Icewind Dale Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore, is a book that should only be read by those willing to suspend their disbelief. And I am very glad to finally have the trilogy behind me. Now I can get that huge book out of my backpack and quit lugging it around everywhere. Thing was about to give me back problems . . .

I can also forge ahead with my 40+ other reading projects (and these are just the ones I have planned at the moment). I'll start small . . . I now have four books going, but one of them is the book for Inklings.

I also finished The Taming of the Shrew today. I thought at first that this play was basically a chauvinists dream, but as it grew more and more disturbing, I changed my mind. For perfect example of what I mean, please refer to the following (rather long) quote from the play. It's kind of funny. This is the Shrew herself speaking her closing monologue, lecturing her fellow women after seeing the error of her ways:

"Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes,
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor:
It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled,
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.
Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,
Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she's froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am asham'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft, and weak, and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?
Come, come, you froward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot:
In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready; may it do him ease."

Husband's reply: "Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate. We'll to bed." (Act V, Sc. II)

Now, when you get the men doing this kind of thing in the plays, it's fairly comical, but when a woman (who was full of spirit and vivacity at the beginning of the play) is this cowed, it's just disturbing. My perceptions also might have something to do with witnessing the way she arrived in this state. Starved and deprived of sleep by her husband, jerked around by the nose (metaphorically speaking) . . . Wow. It was just an impressive display all around.

And now, the latest Rigoberta Menchu news . . .

Newsflash: Two Great Addle-Brains Put Heads Together

French President, Jacques "Chucklehead" Chirac, held a historic meeting with Rigoberta "The Face That Brought a Thousand Ships to a Screeching Halt" Menchu on Sunday. Chirac is said to have officially surrendered to the Guatemalan political activist, saying "I thought I'd never have to see her again after we met last year. I just couldn't take it anymore."

Jared "The Guatemalan" Wheeler called the French president yesterday to inform him that he and his organization were 100% behind this. "Just keep her," he said. "In fact, if you send her back, I'll invade."

Anyway, whatever . . . I could do that better, but I find myself in need of bed. Again. The link has a great picture of the two sitting together, but the article, I am sorry to say, is in Spanish. Reading over the Menchu archive on this site, (and there is at least one entry for every two weeks or so), I noticed one thing in particular. The woman is a menace. Half of the articles are about her announcing that she'll be suing someone new for war crimes or something. Someday, when I am president, she will have to be dealt with. And that is my anti-Menchu rant of the day. Hasta mañana, y'all.

Posted by Jared at 04:37 PM | TrackBack