15/1030: Happy German Unity Day

While I already posted my obligatory explanation of the holiday and its significance for those who didn’t know here, it’s a good moment to write a little about one of the more significant intermedial references I am exploring for my dissertation. For those who read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, I am talking about the way the fall of the Berlin Wall is described.

November 10, 1989 [why Nov. 10? It should be “November 9, 1989”]

A Wall was coming down. It was an historic occasion. No one really knew quite who had put it up or who was tearing it down or whether this was good, bad, or something else; no one knew how tall it was, how long it was, or why people had died trying to cross it, or whether they would stop dying in future, but it was educational all the same; as good an excuse for a get-together as any. It was a Thursday night, Alsana and Clara had cooked, and everyone was watching history on TV.  (197)

This passage and the parts that follow it are intermedial because of the reference to the news reporting in 1989. One sees the events as described by the characters.

“What’s happening now?” […] “Same, man.” […] “Same. Same. Same. Dancing on the wall, smashing it with a hammer. Whatever. I wanna see what else is on, yeah?” (197).

What’s more interesting, though, is how the characters are made to respond to what they are seeing. Irie, the teenage daughter of Clara and Archie, is impressed by what she sees as the ‘historic moment’ and she sees it as a moment of freedom, parallel to her own yearning for freedom and some great change in her personal life. On the other hand, her father and Samad are more critical of Germany on the brink of unity.

“Not all of us think fondly upon a united Germany” (199).

Of course, the words hold truth on and off the page.

Then, there’s the TV reporting itself, something one can find in the records with little research:

The twenty-eight-mile-long-scar- the ugliest symbol of a divided world, East and West- has no meaning anymore. Few people, including this reporter, thought to see it happen in their lifetimes […]. (199)

Something I’m not sure about, is if this is supposed to the live-reporting of a reporter. If so, then is the reporter stepping into the role of the author? Is the reporter a real reporter? I’m a bit tired, so I leave this last question for tomorrow (or later). In the meantime, I leave with a tribute to one of Germany’s greatest moments and one happily remembered by Germans today.

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

An Image of Africa- Chinua Achebe

Today, I ask you to read this: Achebe: An Image of Africa

You know how they- the teachers placed in the classroom to help you learn something- don’t tell you until high school that Shakespeare may not be Shakespeare at all? Not someone born at Stratford-upon-Avon? And that you’ve been fan-girling over someone who may be someone else, or multiple people at once?

Well, why didn’t they teach me something useful (after all, if you believe in Barthes, the author doesn’t matter), like that the author of Heart of Darkness “depersonalizes a portion of the human race?” I’ve been idolizing Conrad as an exophonic writer for years by writing and rewriting essays trying to understand his black/white imagery, explorations of morality and the “duality of man.” But in reality, I was completely overlooking Conrad’s blatant racism. Does this mean that I have “bought” into the Western psychological need to “set up Africa as a foil to Europe? (for you: the argument for Achebe’s essay). Why has Joseph Conrad remained so esteemed in Anglophone literature and other authors, like Rudyard Kipling have not? Both produce articulate “acceptable” descriptions of the “other” that denies them their humanity. Though, actually, I think Kipling in Kim gives his Indian characters more humanity than Conrad gives to the Congolese… But I think the point is that literature, while pleasing, can teach us the wrong things sometimes.

I think ultimately, I am shocked that I had to wait until I was 23 to read this essay, and that I only stumbled on it by accident. No one ever told me to read it, and I wish someone had.

Perhaps you will too, after reading “An Image of Africa.”

Not that I am innocent of bigotry, so I’m sure there’s a few things I still have to learn. Just look at how I talk about Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko to see that I am still very bad at articulating how I feel in response to racism, and I am very wary about talking about it. I don’t know if we should, but at the same time, I gained something by being exposed to this essay, even if I’ve lost how I feel about Conrad now.

Loreena McKennit and English Literature

What more enjoyable way to take in English literature than to be able to listen to it?

At least I don’t know most poems as well as I do these:

“The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes

“The Layde and the Knight” by Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, anyone?)

and my personal favorite, “The Lady of Shalott” by Lord Alfred Tennyson

edited to add “The Stolen Child” by Alfred Butler Yeats

Apparently, Lorena McKennit was very inspired by these literary works. I can understand why, and she produces beautiful renditions of these artworks. It helps that they are easily translated to music.

Navigational Tools for Teaching Kamau Brathwaite’s Trilogy The Arrivants: Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands

via Navigational Tools for Teaching Kamau Brathwaite’s Trilogy The Arrivants: Rights of Passage, Masks, and Islands.

I am running out of time. With only one week left before the exam, I am scrounging about for last minute resources on the works I am reading. This blog post was especially enlightening for me in regards to Kamau Brathwaite’s works. I find his typographic inventions fascinating, but am drawn to the polyphony in light of my own interests in multilingual, multicultural identity. This identity is one that is becoming more and more common in this “globalized” world.

I found that my literary tastes have also finally ripened to appreciate poetry; though I guess it helps that Brathwaite’s poetry is especially powerful.

Finally, reading works like The Arrivants or Lousie Bennet’s works are helping me to understand the currents of literary thought and movement through contemporary literature. I am excited by the way in which “national” literature is no longer “national, and how I get to see it happening.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia

Utopia (1516) seems much younger than its almost five hundred years. If you liked Gulliver’s Travels, Brave New World, or 1984,  but you’ve never heard of Utopia, you’d be surprised at how many of the thoughts expressed by Jonathan Swift, Aldous Huxley, or George Orwell or were founded on ideas elaborated on by More. Some of the major differences include acknowledgment of the developments from technological advancement and political changes. Another thing you’d likely be surprised to learn is that of all the authors mentioned above were English/Irish writers. Utopian literature in general (the genre term comes from More’s book) is dominated by the English. It’s as if the English don’t have anything better to do than come up with ideal systems of government. Don’t they like the one they have?

An early rendering of the fictional isle, though I imagined it slightly differently

Imagine the rest of the isle equally covered with small townships

My rendering: Imagine the rest of the isle equally covered with small townships

That being said, Plato was one of the first people to use his imagination and construct an ideal system of government in The Republic. Of course, in his version, philosophers are the kings. Plato considered his system eutopian and perfect, which distinguishes his work from More and those who came after him (hence the irony in the homonym of eutopia and utopia). Plato put a lot of work into pointing out the flaws of an already present system and instructed how to make them better. More and those after him propose alternative systems that seem like solutions, but don’t purpose to provide all the right answers to all the questions.

While reading Utopia seems instructive and a seriously viable plan, it’s best to look at the booklet as a satire of what was already happening in England and what could be changed. Most of these suggestions happen by referring to what the Utopians don’t do. This implies that that which they do do (like all that repetition?) is not that what More’s contemporaries did/do. There seem to be a lot of suggestions that could be taken seriously, such as removing the idea of private property and the “scarcity value” of “precious” metals like silver and gold, but when one reads certain lines, one has to question whether the suggestions are merely commentary or actual suggestions.

The Utopians are particularly strict about that kind of thing [pre-marital sex], because they think very few people would want to get married – which means spending one’s whole life with the same person, and putting up with all the inconveniences that this involves – if they weren’t carefully prevented from having any sexual intercourse otherwise

Basically, More  can write that no one would want to get married if they can have sex without getting married, because he knows no one would take these thoughts seriously (though I’m sure the idea has crossed many a mind). Because no one would take it seriously, no one would bother to say it. Because More says it, one can imagine that the rest isn’t meant to be taken seriously either.

What fascinates me about this book is not just the highly elaborate system of government More constructs, but the ways in which he avoids censorship and getting himself into trouble. During his time, there was no such thing as “freedom of speech” and one has to keep in mind that this was written even before works like John Milton’s Aereopagitica. Mind you, the measures More takes didn’t keep him out of the Tower of London forever, but they did ensure that the book survives to this day.

Besides the tactic just mentioned, consider the framing device More uses. The book opens with a letter from More to his friend, Peter Gilles, asking Gilles to find out from his acquaintance, Raphel Hithlody’s the actual location of Utopia. Then, one has a letter from Gilles to another friend asking for assistance in publishing More’s summary of Hithlody’s descriptions of the island. Finally, one has the opening of the “account” which describes More meeting Hithlody for the first time and the three of them, More, Hithlody and Gilles sitting down for a good few hours and talking about Hithlody’s solution to punishment for thievery, which segues into a description of various different lands that Hithlody has experienced. These two letters set up the fiction that More is not responsible for the description of the events and that he was receiving merely a description and not a defense as Hithlody points out:

We’ve no time to discuss whether it’s right or wrong – nor is it really necessary, for all I undertook was to describe their way of life, not to defend it.

The frame further allows More to project some negative views without taking the blame for them himself. In fact, the character More can disclaim any responsibility and present a critical viewpoint of this system, thereby relieving himself of guilt for the implicit criticism of the present government by the story:

I cannot agree with everything he said, for all his undoubted learning and experience. But I freely admit that there are many features of the Utopian Republic which I should like – though hardly expect – to see adopted in Europe.

More acknowledges that there are some positive aspects of Utopia without specifying what they are, and he implies that there are some things in his contemporary Europe that need to be changed, but doesn’t specify those either.

There are other ways that More writes so that his ideas are not taken seriously to his disadvantage, such that vital aspects of human nature, such as the desire to be creative, competitive, or selfish are ignored. It is clear that the systems put in place in Utopia cannot actually be put into practice, and therefore one does not need to be threatened by the system.

At least, I don’t feel threatened by the system or the fear that we’ll all suddenly think there’s no difference between fine-woven and coarse wool. I do, however, leave reading this book with the quiet awe that one man thought communism through so long before the industrialization of England, or how certain themes appear over and over in the English literature I am reading. One particularly strong theme is the steady flow of opinion on morality, and the other is the significant difference in wealth acquired by actions and wealth acquired by inheritance. For a nation so stuck on the idea of nobility and blood, a place where the royal monarchy is still allowed to retain vast reserves of the nation’s wealth, the literature seems awfully obsessed with class consciousness. More on that in the coming weeks.

Disclaimer: I am ignoring my writing pride and general fear of unworthiness in my ability to write well/ clever in order to produce more entries on the works on my reading list. This blog is more a tool to get my thoughts out and dots connected rather than a formal product for readers. Such being said, I kind of hope I get readers anyway, so if you’ve got any comments to share, please do share them!

Oroonoko

Gosh darnint. Not only do I fail to update my readings on my other two works that I’ve completed, but I forget to save the write-up I did on Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko. Oh well, at least this gives me the chance to rethink some things.

I had a hard time starting to write about this rather short novel due to its subject material, mostly, I am afraid to write anything that may seem racist or insensitive to cultural and historical fact, but I do have the Norton Critical Edition of Oroonoko that provides me with several articles about the history of slavery in the Americas and more information about the colonies. Therefore, I am fairly well informed, but still apologize for any ignorance I may show. I accept all constructive criticisms that you can provide me with.

In essence, Oroonoko is a confusing mix of romanticized and highly accurate recountation of the life of an African royal who, after an unfortunate series of events in his country, ended up sold as a slave in the British territory of Surinam. I write “romanticized” because I am not sure if I can believe the fantastic tale of Prince Oroonoko who fell in love with the most beautiful girl in his area, Imoinda, and marries her, but loses her to the lusts of his grandfather, gets her after all, and then is separated from her. Coincidentally they end up in the same colony of Surinam and are allowed to be together, but only as slaves. Parallel to this (but it is not clear if this is directly caused by Oroonoko’s desire to free himself, his wife, and unborn child), Oroonoko starts a slave revolt that fails. Oroonoko is punished, seeks revenge for the disgrace of the punishment, but before doing so wants to protect his wife by killing her. After killing her, he mourns so much for her loss (and is likely still not recovered from the extremely brutal whipping he receives) that he fails to carry out his revenge and is executed by quartering. It seems like an epic tale, but at the same time, it’s supposed to be true history. Yet, the truth of the recountation is confused by superlatives that Oroonoko, Imoinda, and the events are described with.

It is debated whether Behn observed these happenings, heard about them from others, made them up, or a combination of all three, It is reasonable to believe in the events. I learned a bi, though. I think that what surprised me the most is the way in which the indigenous people of Surinam are treated with more kindness, if out of the opportunistic desire to prevent upsetting the only people who know this “new land,” than the Africans. The interactions between the Africans and Europeans seem much more fraught by disturbingly matter-of-fact betrayal and distrust, and that must be due to a longer history between the two groups. As I know from my U.S. American history, the relations between the inindigenous people of North America and the Europeans were initially good, but quickly soured after the Europeans began moving westward and abusing trade relations.

Talking about the author is easier than talking about the text, I was excited to read something written by someone who seems to be a 17th century female adventurer. If Behn is known at all, she is known as one of the first professional female literary writers of the English language. She was also a spy (as debatable as that is, it’s pretty cool). Reading about her adventures proves that women in petticoats could have wild timelines, timelines that are full of questionable validity in a world that one imagines was run by men.Her works are not very known, but at least they have survived through the 21st century, something many of Behn’s contemporaries cannot say. I myself had never heard of her or her work, Oroonoko, but it’s refreshing to know that women were literarily active in the 17th century. I wonder if Behn’s success was promoted by taking the winning side in the English restoration period (she was a loyal Royalist supporter) and by crossing the vast barrier of the Atlantic Ocean that allowed her to cross social boundaries as well.

Yet most of her success has to do with the unusually straight-forward account she makes of Surinam and the tale of Oroonoko. His life was fascinating.

I would compare this work to those of Heinrich von Kleist, such as his tale “Verlobung in San Domingo.” Even more comparable is the work to Caroline Augustus Fischer’s “Wilhelm der Neger [William the Negro].” This is a German work from the 19th century about an African, Wilhelm, sold into slavery in England, but treated well by his master, Sir Robert, who sees Willhelm’s intelligence and and raises him like his own son. Wilhelm eventually goes to Santo Domingo and helps educate the slaves and helps them revolt.

Map: St. Dominigue (Haiti),

Again, Santo Domingo comes up. The split island of the Domincan Republic and Haiti has a rich and complicated history; it is perhaps most notable for having successful slave revolts early in the 18th century.

The story is complicated by Wilhelm’s love for a girl, Molly, but Sir Robert, while wanting the best for Wilhelm, also falls in love with her. In class at the time, my professor suggested looking at the complications provided by the relationship between Sir Robert and Wilhelm and suggested that Molly helped develop their relationship more than anything else. It is fairly obvious that Wilhelm der Neger was written later than Oroonoko, since literary style played a larger role.

At any rate, Wilhelm der Neger provides an excellent work to set in relation to Oroonoko, and the parallels extend even in the fact that the authors of both works were exceptional women.

Later, when I read Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, I’ll be able to discuss both works in relation again. It will be interesting to see how the 17th century and 19th centuries compare, as well as having the author write his own story and experiences, as opposed to having them written/determined for him.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Before I attempt a decent write-up of this novel, can I just brag about how lucky I am to have work consist of entertaining myself? Sure, writing essays and responses is desk-work and therefore not as fun, but my main work is reading fiction. People read fiction for fun, for leisure, and I get to do it academically and hopefully, one day, professionally.

Borrowed from a post on Summersville Public Library. I liked the colors.

Okay. I’ve got that out of my system now.

Today, I wanted to write about Oscar Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel pulls many parallels with the two other works I mentioned in my last post, and the similarities in subject matter are not as surprising when on considers that all three are Victorian era- an era notoriously known for the people’s almost inhumane concern with morality and good social standing. Dorian Gray was published in 1891. That’s five years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and eight years before Heart of Darkness. This is actually what I expected, because the way in which man’s different traits are handled seem, to me, to be more sophisticated every time. As I began to point out last time. Heart of Darkness is a more subtle examination of the duality of man and the instances that can change a man’s character. Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is a more direct critique of society’s demands on individuals, and a less subtle examination of the possible horrors of the human soul. Dorian Gray seems to find the medium between the two works, exploring the effects of society’s ideals on the individual and what happens when a person is able to escape judgement long enough– which seems to work stronger than conscience in every instance– and Wilde’s description of Gray includes several metanarative moments in which the reader is forced to question what “living well” means.

We begin with the suggestion that living well means remaining young and retaining one’s innocence, or at least the semblance of innocence, but it quickly becomes clear that age is not the man’s enemy. It is the inability to take accountability for one’s actions.

Aside from all the philosophical and witty questions about life and man’s purpose and possible success in it, Dorian Gray is another story about  man’s divided self. That is, it is another story that attempts to come to terms with the fact that the actions of a man can be good or bad and that even when one strives to do only one or the other, the actions of the one side cannot fail to affect the other. In Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde we see one man with two possible states inhabiting one physical body. As I mentioned, the one state is induced by an external source, but we know that he evilness is not created by external source. Mr. Hyde was not someone foreign to Dr. Jekyll, he was merely the outlet for Dr. Jekyll’s animalistic, cruel impulses. Therefore, when Dr. Jekyll atones for the actions of Mr. Hyde by sacrificing himself, he is really taking accountability for himself.

On the other hand, Dorian Gray is a figure who keeps his form throughout the entire tale, except for the end, and the acts of lust, cruelty, selfishness and cowardliness–all very human and acceptable in mild forms– are committed by the character who is externally beautiful, young, and unchanged by the acts he commits. In fact, it seems that Dorian Gray wants to blame everyone but himself for his depravity. The reader is especially made aware of Lord Henry Wotton’s influence on Dorian through things like aphorisms and literary works, and one forgets that the desire to be the things that are not “socially acceptable” are not from Wotton, but come from Dorian himself.

I think that it is clear that Dorian Gray is more complex than Stevenson’s tale, but it is also meant to address different concerns, just like Heart of Darkness means to explore more than just the immoral character of the “white man” in central Africa. I should probably devote more time to discussing this, but these blog posts are just responses, not essays.

In closing, I just wanted to bring in some thoughts raised by Wilde’s preface, the one that seems to be a manifesto of his life’s intent just as much as it is a disclaimer for Wilde’s only novel that was quickly criticized for it’s “immoral depiction of a young man.” I saw some critical theory addressed here as well, such as instances of structuralism, formalism, and reader response.  If one takes some of Wilde’s lines point-blank, one could bring in Roland Barthes “Death of the Author” or Saussure’s Course in general linguistics. For example, Wilde writes “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.” In this instance, Wilde expresses the work of the artist and the critic (who is potentially any reader) and points out that it is the reader’s impressions, and not the author’s purpose, that controls the potential power of a piece of literature.

In another instance, WIlde writes that “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.” Wilde reiterates his point about the reader’s role in creating the power of a piece of literature, but he also addresses the form of his own works. I have heard criticism that Wilde is rather superficial. That is, he uses words expertly and lays them out intricately and entertainingly (just take a moment to read the first few paragraphs of the novel, one of the most memorable descriptions of early summer in England in a bizarrely beautiful way, or this list of aphorisms), but he fails to layer enough meaning beneath the beautiful arrangement of words. Because of this, pointing out the surface, symbols, and that “beneath the surface” seems to challenge the reader to look deeper and find things that Wilde could not have intended and yet create an act of reading more valuable than initially believed.

My last note is an attempt to complete the task I began in writing this post, that is preparing me for my exams. Since I am studying comparative literature, it helps to see how this work compares across national traditions, but also across other works of the English literary tradition. So, consider Wilde’s quote “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” For those that have read John Milton’s Aereopagitica, you’ll recognize Wilde’s quote as something that seems to be informed by Milton’s criticism of censorship and general judgement of society. Wilde, however, seems more concerned with the author’s role, which again complicates how we can read him and his assertions. Oh well.

For those that haven’t read this novel yet, it’s okay, I guess (do you like my implicit criticism in that?). However, it is probably one of the most enjoyable works of literature I’ve read in a while as it was a genuine pleasure to read–and it’s online for free.