226/1030: Update in work and life 

I’ve been following a blogger (maybe I’ll remember to link him here at a later date) who recently has been posting daily updates of what he accomplished with his dissertation each day. It really is a log of his work in a way that seems more productive than trying to produced polished (barely, if at all) posts each time. I’m probably going to do a mix of what I’ve been doing and what he does.

This new style of logging may become especially productive given the fact that I’ve recently been forced to rent a desk due to a shifting home situation and actually have to commute to work on my dissertation now, which somehow motivates me to get stuff done again. I’ve relocated the stack of articles and notes that have been gathering dust on my desk in the apartment to my new desk. Along with a binder where I’ve already started sorting, a new binder, a hole-puncher (two-hole, as the Germans do), a remote keyboard and my motivation, coffee, tea, and milk, the items I’ve brought have yielded a few hours of work and some organization of old material.

While I have a serious problem to tackle with the large amount of stuff I’ve read and haven’t annotated or organized properly (and the task seems very daunting), I somehow manage to just keep adding new material. But I think if I can have the discipline to start annotating and organizing those right away, I may slowly see a way through the morass.

Most recently, I attended a conference about discourse in public places and the search for resonance, and I selectively attended the one presentation where Bakhtin, my favorite Russian theorist, was the focal point along with Yoko Tawada, Habermas, and a few others. The main takeaway from that session was that a) Tawada would be a productive author to look at for “voice,” b) the difference between voice and Bakhtin’s “utterance” may be found in the body/language discussion, and I’m a Bakhtin pro, or at least more than the academic laymen (this is not to be confused with actually being an expert- I just know more than the basic understanding of his theories, if there even is such a thing). This realization of my position in the academic world is further validated by acceptance into a prestigious research school and the award of a scholarship.

That’s right, the biggest news for my dissertation work is that I’m soon going to be paid more for working on my dissertation than I got paid working a part-time “real” job. Not only do I have 20 hours more a week to work on my diss, but I have more resources with which to do the work (and party afterwards). Work hard, play hard. Life is pretty sweet.

While I am writing this on day 227, I plan to post somehting else today as well, so it’s filling in for the 226th day that I missed .

27-29/1030: Abstract or Concrete? an incomplete reflection on “The Dead” and the dead

Last week was the first week where I hit a major road-block in writing regularly, but part of my not writing is also because I’ve been giving myself a bit of slack, since classes and the semester officially start today.

While I could write about the first seminar introduction I visited today, I need to finish the post I started on Saturday. A lot ran through my head that day that I need to address in a few small moments, but first I start with a small discussion of James Joyce’s The Dubliners and its last story: “The Dead.”

My first introduction to James Joyce was in a writing tutorial, in the praise of a story which the director of the writing program, my one-on-one teacher, could not praise enough. She said I had to read at least this story if I didn’t read the whole book. I’ll admit that I only fairly skimmed the text that evening, always meaning to devote more time but never found any. But now, I felt as though I needed to read it.

It’s a layered story, and I honestly was waiting the whole time I read for a death. Also, for a while, I thought this would be a Christmas ghost story, like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” or the Russian modernists. But I could also appreciate the third person focused narration of Gabriel and his sensitive observations of the evening- finely literate and politically involved. He gave quite a speech for the hostesses, but he is worried about it beforehand, and embarrassed about it afterwards. Of course he’s fictional- maybe a mirror of Joyce himself, as he imagines himself. I looked for “The Lass of Aughrim,” and decided I preferred some other Irish songs better. But this reading was not about the songs or the happy parts- or, perhaps not just the happy parts. And I can write about the music in “The Dead” at another time.

The reason I was drawn towards this text this weekend, was because of my own experience with the dead. I was asked to help clean out the apartment of a dead man whose next-of-kin had rejected the inheritance. The experience was unique and sad for me- being the first experience of its kind and for someone whom I didn’t know. I cannot imagine what it must be like when I have to do it for someone I know and love, but my time will come soon enough. I guess Joyce caught that impression well enough in words by the end of the story.

 The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one they were all becoming shades.  (Gutenberg online edition of The Dubliners)

One by one, we are all becoming shades. But we know this, despite our daily endeavors to continue as if we would live forever. It’s the other truth Joyce captured that answered why I wanted to read this:

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

What bothered me about cleaning out this man’s home, was that his death was removed from love. I saw the reminders of his relationship with his children, with his girlfriend, and I pieced together these relationships. He had hot chocolate mix for kids, an Advent set with Christmas decorations, books from his French girlfriend signed “de moi, a toi.” Why weren’t these people who loved him doing this work? And why could I separate the objects from the man one moment, and then in the next despise my packing up a useful supply or item for my personal use? I was missing the feeling of loss that should accompany this kind of sorting- the loss is intertwined with love.

He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.

To love someone more because one knows s/he will die one day I have experienced before, but what Joyce describes, the falling into nothingness by fading and withering versus going boldly “in the glory of some passion” is what I’m worried this man did, and that I was witness to this. I fear this fate for myself and yet I know that the vast majority of us will die of old age, faded and withered, than with some great passion.

All these feelings flowed through my head without words and I yearned for some way to express them. I looked for “The Dead.” Now, Joyce has given me words, but it made me wonder- does writing make our ideas more abstract, or more concrete? I wanted the script to read to verbalize my pain and fears, and in a way, they brought them closer to reality. However, at the same time, I’ve made them more abstract. By bringing these feelings into a system of signs, I’ve removed the primal feelings from their primacy. I suppose this is one distinction Walter Ong refers to, when he talks about verbal versus written language. Perhaps that is why music is so important to the story, because they connect the primal and the abstract- and Joyce would be very much aware of this. Maybe I should have avoided the words, but at the same time, they help me. I feel like I’ve worked through my feelings- that I’ve been productive in them by going through the logic of putting them into words.

Still, I can’t deny the magic of Joyce and his writing. There is no question that he proves the power of literature, and I feel grateful to have had the time to read the story properly this time in light of what I was going through.

The question of abstract versus concrete is something I want to return to, but in the meantime, I am content with these last words:

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I can feel the snow as it falls.

Work Cited: Joyce, James. “The Dead.” The Dubliners. Project Gutenberg: Ebook, (2001). Online.

Disclaimer: this series is a collection of brainstorms and free-writes that are a part of my planning for actual text in my dissertation. Therefore, I am giving myself the liberty to make mistakes, make assumptions (call me out on offensive ones, though!), not tie up loose ends, and generally not make any sense. 

Copyright 2016 Dorothea Trotter: because these writings are planning for actual text in my dissertation, some of this will appear in my dissertation. I hold the right to the words in this post and require that interested parties ask for permission before copying the words or ideas too closely. Obviously, the date of posting is the date of copyright and I reserve the right to challenge suspected plagiarism in my future dissertation submission using these blogs as proof of originality.

Confessions of a Literature Major- Never Liked Poetry

I never used to like poetry. I mean, I’m sure many students have gone home from their first English lit. classes with an assignment of five poems or less, and thought “hey, this is going to be so easy to knock-out!” Next class session, however, they slink into their seats and avoid direct eye contact with the teacher. It’s not from lack of trying that they feel incredibly stupid. It’s more from lack of experience with the density of thoughts.

Despite the exposure to short, powerful statements on social media platforms like Twitter, students are usually not ready to handle the manipulation of form in poetry (rhyme, meter, structure) that is supposed to affect the content, usually expressed in precise diction that interacts with the other words in the poems to create a specific mood and get across a specific idea. It is the unique condensation of thought into verbal expression that makes the poetry that takes up so little space on paper cause such a flow of images and ideas in the mind.

Of course, many people struggle with poetry. If they’re science, math, music or history majors, the body of work is like a foreign collection of wires on the ground that need to be untangled. However, what if I told you that literature students feel this way too? The only difference is that lit. students are given some tools to untangle those wires, usually have more patience to do so (it’s their primary occupation), and feel that the rewards of untangling that knot- or rather, evaporating the dew of poetry to see all the chemical compounds it’s made of- outweigh any other rewards from any other work.

I struggled with poetry since high school. I liked the idea of playing with sounds and meter schemes, but I could never understand what the poet was saying without help from my teacher.

I remember also, when entering college, that I didn’t get much better. In a British Romanticism course, we were asked to read John Keat’s narrative poem Lamia. I came into class that day so happy that I understood it was about impossible love (which it kind of was), but imagine my shock when the class started talking about a child-eating serpent/vampire creature.

Lamia (first version) by John William Waterhouse 1905

But something has shifted in the past summer. Perhaps it has to do with the extreme influx of words I’ve been consuming for the past months, but having poetry to read has become something like a relief… and I understand it! I’ll read sets of poems and later go back to look at the anthology introductions to find that most of my observations were correct. I can even locate precise lines that reflect the main theme of the poem, and I usually see something deeper than the superficial anthology summary describes. I can actually name favorites poets now: John Keats, W.H. Auden, Derek Walcott…

Of course these are more modern poets, and perhaps I like them more because I understand the language better, but I can also appreciate the emotions and events that brought forth the words better. And I don’t like all the modern poets, so that’s something. And I’ll admit that I like Pope and the Victorian poets too.

It seems stupid to just say “I like these poets” without giving any examples for why I like them, but I don’t have the time right now to outline all my propensities. I just wanted to express one of the reasons I am grateful to have to prepare for this MA exam.

Hamburg in Literature

The Elbe in the vicinity of Hamburgh is so divided, and spread out, that the country looks more like a plain overflowed by heavy rain than the bed of a great river- Dorothy Wordsworth- Alfoxden Journal 1798

Lately, I find myself surprisingly excited whenever I come across “Hamburg” in the works I have to read for my MA exam. Of course, the city comes up more frequently in the German texts. For example, Thomas Mann’s main character in Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) comes from Hamburg, Part of this is because Hamburg is industrially a successful city. Lying (almost) at the mouth of the Elbe, the fourth largest river in Europe, which flows all the way through the Czech Republic, the city was obviously home to many traders for a long time. It’s a major import and export destination for which one can see its roots in the Speisekammern. At any rate, Hans Castorp comes from Hamburg because he is a dignified Burgher (one of Mann’s favorite types of characters), and Hamburg is a city full of them.

However, while I expected to come across Germany in my German texts, I was a little thrown aback when I read that Dorothy Wordsworth and her husband were there. I shouldn’t have been though, considering that all the Romantics made it their duty to visit continental Europe and the “old world.” Dorothy writes about their trip in her Alfoxden journal. Not everything she describes is flattering… for example, according to her the bakers and shopkeepers take pride in how they can cheat their customers– especially if they are foreign. Dorothy clearly prefers England to Germany (and I don’t blame her, necessarily), but it’s really fun to read about the parts of the city she describes and imagine her there. Some of my favorite passages:

We drank tea upon deck by the light of the moon. I enjoyed solitude and quietness, and many a recollected pleasure, hearing still the unintelligible jargon of the many tongues that gabbled in the cabin.

She describes the diversity of sounds and people she sees. To her they are strange; to me, they are like a waft of familiarity:

Hanoverians with round borders, showing all the face, and standing upright, a profusion of riband.. . . Fruit-women, with large straw hats in the shape of an inverted bowl, or white handkerchiefs tied round the head like a bishop’s mitre. Jackets the most common, often the petticoat and jacket of different colours.