Thursday, December 31, 2009

Narrative of the Life of an American Slave

In the previous two posts the popular American redemptive narrative, or recovery plot, was mentioned, and the slave narrative was cited as one example. Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave is probably the best known, most popular, and classic type of the slave narrative.

By the time it was published (1845), the conventional formulaic structure was well established: moving from an account of life in slavery to a turning point of escape, rescue or manumission and then to an account of life in freedom. Douglass follows this pattern and includes almost all the elements of the slave narrative formula: his birth in slavery; obscure parentage; bleak conditions of food, clothing, shelter, work; cruel overseer, whippings, becoming sensitive to suffering; learning to read and write; developing a special sense of destiny; brutality of Christian slave owners; rebelling against cruel treatment; failed escape attempts; successful escape; new home and identity; reflections on slavery. (

What distinguishes Douglass' Narrative from others of its type is the clarity and effectiveness of its style. While there are a couple of places where rhetorical flourishes seem excessive, for the most part the style is understated, matter-of-fact, and transparent.

Appropriate to his primary abolitionist purpose, Douglass crafts a style that is broadly appealing and accessible to a mass audience. He projects the persona of an intelligent, practical man who is sensitive to the suffering of his fellow slaves, yet tough enough to fight back when necessary and smart enough to deceive his captors in order to learn how to read and write and ultimately to plan and execute his own escape.

Some of his white mentors in the anti-slavery movement thought his autobiography would be more credible if it were written in a "plantation" style using slave vernacular, but Douglass insisted on demonstrating his literacy and self-education by aiming at a middle range between the colloquial and the high-flown. In some ways, he anticipates the realistic, journalistic style that came to dominate post-Civil War American literature.

While there are moments of melodrama, for the most part Douglass tells his story in a straightforward, factual, down-to-earth manner, establishing his credibility through a literate, direct, and confident voice. He successfully appropriates Christian symbolism and Biblical language to construct a devastating critique of the hypocritical religous underpinnings of the institution of slavery.

For the most part his tone is either neutral or directly denunciatory of slavery, but he sometimes takes a sentimental turn, sometimes an ironic one. Lest any reader be inclined to view his occasional sentimentalism as somehow weak, he uses the opening chapter to satirically address the oft-cited passage of Genesis 9:20-27, the story of Noah cursing Ham to a life of bondage, regularly used as Biblical justification for slavery: "If the lineal descendents of Ham are alone to be scriptually enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters." Such ironic touches effectively display a toughness of tone as well as of argument.

Perhaps the ultimate irony and most brilliant rhetorical stroke is Douglass' implicit dramatization of himself as the quintessential American type--the self-made man, the "rugged individualist"-- the personification of Emersonian self-reliance. While Douglass acknowledges his bonds of friendship with other slaves and the help he received from others in his escape, what emerges most strongly is the profile of a man who acts independently to liberate himself from oppression. By presenting himself in these terms, Douglass' makes a powerful argument that a black slave is as much an American as the pioneer, the entrepreneur, or the original settlers throwing off the yoke of European oppression.

Without a doubt, Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of an American Slave is one of the most remarkable works of political rhetoric to have been produced in all of American literature.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Danish Girl

Americans love the redemptive narrative, the recovery plot (see previous post), and throughout our history it has taken many forms: spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative, slave narrative, economic success story, courtship romance, "coming of age," medical/psychological recovery. All of these genres involve the struggle with obstacles, redemption from suffering, and the attainment of salvation, freedom, fame and fortune, romantic love, maturity, and/or recovery from dis-ease, either physical or psychological or both.

A contemporary sub-set of the physical/psychological recovery plot is the story of the transexual, who undergoes physical, psychological, and social transformation to redeem him/herself from the bondage of a body and a gender role that do not fit and to achieve a sense of wholeness and authenticity in a new body and new gender identity.The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff (2000) is a recent fictional version of an experience that has been recounted in transexual autobiographies from Jan Morris' Conundrum (1974) to Jennifer Boylan's She's Not There (2003). In this work of fiction Ebershoff imagines his way into the life of Danish painter Einer Wegener, who underwent the first surgical sex change in Dresden in 1931 to become Lili Elbe, all with the help and support of his/her wife Greta Waud.

What strikes me as remarkable about this novel is the way in which it represents the transexual journey as a biological experience. Obviously, it is a psychological and social experience as well, and the novel portrays it as such. But more than any other account I have read, in this novel the body of Einer/Lili is almost a part of the setting of the narrative. Einer/Lili's body is like a stage on which the transexual drama is acted out. Ebershoff captures the biological, as well as the psychological and social, suffering of Einer/Lili, and explores the erotic dimension of the experience more than any other author I have read. One has the sense that Lili's physical survival depends upon a successful transformation from a male to a female body.

Lili's redemption and liberation from this suffering comes by way of three separate surgeries, during which it is discovered that she has ovaries. The last surgery involves a uterine transplant to make it
possible for her to become pregnant. Ironically, the novel ends with the ominous foreshadowing of Lili's death. The historical Einer/Lili did in fact die about three months after the third surgery, possibly from transplant rejection. Thus this redemptive narrative becomes a tragic one. Lili literally risks her life to save herself, and while her redemption is real, it also ironically leads to her death.

The novel also challenges the popular postmodern view of gender as a social construction rather than an essential part of one's identity. While in one sense Einer/Lili serves as an example of the fluidity and indeterminacy of gender identity, in another she/he dramatizes its essential psychological and biological reality, experienced by Einer/Lili as a necessity which cannot be denied.

One of the doctors that Greta consults tells her about one of his early cases of male to female surgery: "Who would think it possible" he says, "going from man to woman? Who would risk his career to try something that sounds like something from a myth?" On the next page, in a book on gender ambiguity, Einer/Lili reads the myth of Hermes and Aphrodite, whose union produced Hermaphroditus, an intersex character. And, indeed, the transgender character in literature can perhaps be traced back to the metamorphoses and shape-shifting of ancient mythology.

As Greta ponders Einer/Lili's plight, she thinks of him/her as being "on a perpetual track of transformation, as if these changes...would never cease, would lead to no end. And when she thought about it, who wasn't always changing? Wasn't everyone always turning into someone
new?" For Greta, Einer/Lili was just a more extreme and dramatic version of all of us.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shack

A convergence of coincidences led me to read this book by Wm. Paul Young (2007), which I might not otherwise have bothered with. Three people, none of whom know each other and one of whom doesn't even know me, independently recommended it.

I found myself more interested in the murder mystery and family drama than with the religous fantasy. I was disappointed we didn't get to meet the killer and see him brought to justice. However, I was intrigued by the psychological narrative of a father, estranged from his own father, grieving the murder of his six-year-old daughter finally finding some semblance of resolution by returning to the scene of the brutal crime, the shack. Sometimes, relief from pain can only be found by confronting it directly and moving through it, not by hiding, protecting, avoiding, or repressing.

I found the religious fantasy to be overly contrived. God appears as an African American woman, who is a really good cook. Jesus is accurately represented as a Jewish man, and the Holy Ghost is an Asian woman. Despite the suggestion of an interfaith or multifaith spirituality, I suspect most non-Christian readers will have trouble getting past the dramatization of traditional Christian doctrine: trinity, Jesus as divine, Christ as savior. The non-spiritual, strictly materialist reader may find the whole fantasy quite laughable.

However, the message of spiritual truth being found in relationship rather than orthodoxy, love rather than rules, and forgiveness rather than dogma is a message that transcends religous boundaries. Even the atheist can appreciate the power of the human spirit freeing itself from the toxic effects of anger, hate, fear, grief, and self-loathing to find peace by letting go of past pain and rejoining the human community.

One recurrent theme kept bothering me. "Original sin" seemed to be defined in terms of "independence" from humanity as well as God. Yet, considerable independence from established religious institutions must have been required to write a book which departs from and, indeed, challenges conventional Christianity. Without independence from human institutions, including institutionalized conceptions of the "spiritual," an encounter with authentic spirituality may not be possible. Furthermore, without some degree of independence from the "spiritual," we would not be capable of consciously experiencing it.

Americans love the redemptive narrative, and this text can be viewed as a contemporary psychological/spiritual version of the "recovery" plot, which has a long American tradition reaching back to spiritual autobiographies of the early Puritans. The traditional pattern of sin--forgiveness--salvation is recapitulated in the more contemporary pattern of dis-ease--reconciliation--restoration to health and wholeness.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Book of Darwin

In The Book of Darwin (1982) George Gaylord Simpson weaves his own summaries of and commentary on Darwin's life and work in among excerpts from Darwin's writing. There are long sections of detailed observations on everything from cowslips to worms to barnacles. While these sections constitute a fascinating demonstration of Darwin's meticulous powers of observation, data collection,description, and record-keeping, they will tend to put the average reader to sleep.

What will keep most readers awake are Darwin's personal reflections, as well as the development of his thoughts on evolution and religion.

Among these personal reflections are an account of his suffering from chronic illness, his list of pros and cons when contemplating marriage, and the suggestion that as he became more and more absorbed in his scientific pursuits, his ability to appreciate the arts deteriorated.

As he accumulated more and more evidence for the theory of evolution through natural selection, he pondered the implications for religion and concluded, "I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone." He notes that "A celebrated author and divine has written to me that 'he has gradually learned to see that it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws.'" (137)

In the famous "tangled bank" passage, Darwin referenced "the Creator" as follows: "Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, while this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." (143) Apparently, the decline of his senstitivity to the arts did not affect his appreciation for beauty and grandeur in nature.

With respect to science, Darwin defined it as a process of "grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them." (46) Later, he stated, "From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,--that is, to group all
facts under some general laws." (196) Evolution was the law that best explained his voluminous observations and data collection. It seems he was more interested in the observation and hypothesis-development part of the scientific method than in the testing and experimentation part.

In any case, one comes away from this book full of admiration for Darwin's meticulous attention to detail, his patience and endurance in pursuit of understanding, and his courage in testifying to his truth despite nay-sayers, skeptics, and critics.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Identity Politics and Poetry

Of all forms of literature poetry is probably most popularly perceived as being above politics. But consider some of the Best Loved Poems of the American People (Felleman 1936): "Paul Revere's Ride" (Longfellow), "The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England" (Hemans), "Concord Hymn" (Emerson), "My Madonna" (Service), "The Indian Hunter (Cook). The most lyrical of nature poems become political in the context of environmental exploitation and pollution; the sweetest love poems become political in the context of gender power imabalances, heterosexism, and homophobia.

Yet each of the above could be read in terms of universal themes: patriotism, heroism, historical memory, cultural myths, good and evil, natural beauty, human love and attraction.

But what of a self-consciously political poet, such as Audre Lorde, whose identity as African-American, female, and lesbian was a dominant theme? How can she speak with the voice of a black woman and reach the ear of a white male? Can she be valued for her lesbian eroticism and at the same time for her universality?

The Black Unicorn

The black unicorn is greedy.
The black unicorn is impatient.
'The black unicorn was mistaken for a shadow or symbol
and taken
through a cold country where mist painted mockeries
of my fury.It is not on her lap where the horn rests
but deep in her moonpit
The black unicorn is restless
the black unicorn is unrelenting
the black unicorn is not

It's clearly an expression of black female, perhaps also lesbian, identity, but surely a white male can appreciate greed, impatience, misunderstanding, mockery, anger, restlessness, determination, oppression, perhaps even gender inversion.

And how does a straight reader relate to lesbian eroticism? Gay or straight, male or female, black or white, I dare you to read her most erotic lesbian poems and not find an expression of the universal eroticism of earth and moon, flesh and fire, mountain and forest, animal heat...

On A Night of The Full Moon


Out of my flesh that hungers
and my mouth that knows
comes the shape I am seeking
for reason.The curve of your waiting body
fits my waiting hand
your breasts warm as sunlight
your lips quick as young birds
between your thighs the sweet
sharp taste of limes

Thus I hold you
frank in my heart's eye
in my skin's knowing
as my fingers conceive your warmth
I feel your stomach
move against mine

Before the moon wanes again
we shall come together.


And I would be the moon
spoken over your beckoning flesh
breaking against reservations
beaching thought
my hands at your high tide
over and under inside you
and the passing of hungers
attended forgotten

Darkly risen
the moon speaks my eyes judging your roundness

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Elmer Gantry

What George Lakoff analyzes scientifically and linguistically (see previous post), Sinclair Lewis dramatizes (somewhat melodramatically) in Elmer Gantry, his 1927 fictional satire on evangelical Christianity in America. Gantry is a master manipulator and rhetorical razzledazzler, who uses religion and human gullibility to gratify his own ego, satisfy his own desire, and build his own social power. He instinctively knows how to find the right frame and milk the right metaphor to take optimum advantage of his rhetorical situation.

Lakoff does not address the ethics of strategic framing, manipulation of metaphors, and the use of emotional appeals. Back in 1927, Lewis used those same methods to expose how they can be misused by a skillful and charismatic rhetorician to deceive, mislead, and harm an unsuspecting and ill-prepared audience.

Lewis uses the well-established frame of the American success story. In three different episodes Elmer Gantry rises from relative obscurity to a position of power. In the first third of the novel, he goes from irreligious student in a Baptist college to ordained minister to small congregation pastor. After disgracing himself, he begins the second episode as a traveling salesman and rises to prominence as right-hand-man and lover to a nationally known touring woman evangelist. After a fire destroys his evangelical ambitions as well as his lover and patron, Gantry joins the New Thought movement before becoming a Methodist minister, marrying a minister's daughter, who has been groomed as the perfect minister's wife, and moving up as a leading crusader against vice and the first radio broadcasting preacher in his state. He is nearly brought down by a couple of scam artists, who use sex and flattery to trap him in scandal, but, as on previous occasions, he manages to wriggle free, return to his pulpit, and begin eyeing his next young conquest in the choir.

Each episode follows the pattern of a rise to social power, sexual temptation, a fall from power, and a restoration. Gantry's success story is, of course, a satirical inversion of the popular narrative, designed to target evangelical hypocrisy, of which we have seen enough in the last 40 years to make Gantry's exploits seem tame. Lewis' satire seems almost equally directed at the naive and gullible followers of unscrupulous evangelism. It could also be read as a critique of the archetypal American success story itself, which not only falsifies the typical American experience but undermines the validity of the socially successful hero.

The irony is that, like every other creative writer, Lewis uses the methods of narrative framing, metaphor, strategic appeals to values, and emotionally connotative language in his critique of those who misuse such methods and those who fall for them.

Another way of viewing the novel is as a trickster narrative, in which the mischeievous "hero" clarifies the social norms by breaking them. The trickster character is often admired for challenging the social rules. In the case of Elmer Gantry, however, the character functions to expose the hypocrisy of our most socially admired social heros, our religious leaders.

While, in some respects, the novel seems dated, in others, it seems all too reflective of current reality, in which public figures in both religion and politics who uphold principles of "sexual purity" and "family values" and are vocal in their conemnation of those who don't act in accordance with such principles are revealed to be as two-faced and hypocritical as the now iconic Elmer Gantry.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Political Mind

If you liked Don't Think of an Elephant (2004) by George Lakoff, you will appreciate this 2008 expansion on his thesis. The Political Mind is a generally accessible account of how recent research in neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and linguistics informs current understanding of the way brain activity and metaphors unconsciously shape our political thought.

For example, conservatives refer to the "public option" in health insurance reform as a "government takeover" of the health care system, thus framing the debate in terms of an oppressive federal government overpowering and restricting the freedom of individuals and private insurers to function at will in the open marketplace. Lakoff's advice to health reform advocates might be not to accept this frame by trying to refute it, but rather to replace it with a different frame, such as consumer protection and empowerment through individual choice and market competition: "Uncle Sam looks out for YOU!" or "Uncle Sam has your back!" or something like that. (Does the "Uncle Sam" metaphor have too many negative connotations to work?)

Lakoff finds middle ground between traditional correspondence theory of meaning and post-modern constitutive theory. Brain biology and universal human experience in the material world shape language and language shapes the way we think. Change the language and linguistic frame, reinforce it enough, and rewire the brain (within limits, of course).

The book is easier to comprehend than to apply, but provides basic tools for analyzing political discourse and strategically producing it, something conservatives have been much more effective at than liberals. The brain biology gets a bit technical at times and a lay reader just has to take his word for it, but the cognitive psychology and linguistics seem fairly accessible, at least for the generally educated reader.

Lakoff uses post-modern critique effectively, but does not go so far as to discredit nature, biology, and science. Facts and logic have (relative) credibility, but the human mind doesn't naturally think in terms of facts and logic. To be persuasive, we must think strategically in terms of values, metaphors, and emotionally connotative language. So, which frame in the health reform debate is more "true"? It's not just a matter of facts and logic; it's also, perhaps primarily, a matter of values and world view.

If you believe in individual autonomy, free enterprise, market discipline, private charity, and limited government, then the "government takeover" metaphor will be true for you. If you believe in community, protection of basic human rights, the public good, consumer protection from profit-hungry private business, and government regulation of market excess and irregularity, then the metaphor of a protective government that promotes individual well-being and the common welfare will be true for you.

Since, according to Lakoff, most of us shift back and forth between both world views depending on context, it is possible to "frame" political discourse so that it appeals across conventional political divisions. The whole notion of right/left, conservative/liberal, Republican/Democrat polarities is itself a simplistic frame which ignores our full complexity.

I wish I were smart enough or ambitious enough to analyze Lakoff's own frame. I'll keep working on that.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Emily Dickinson's Poetry II

So how did Emily Dickinson critique conventional views of reality? (See previous blog post.) Numerous examples could be given of her challenges to the dominant religious world view and prevailing attitudes toward marriage, domesticity, gender, sexuality, and human psychology. However, her most influential challenge was perhaps to the poetic conventions of the 19th century.

For all of her poems she used a very standard four-line ballad stanza (4 beats, 3 beats, 4 beats, 3 beats), with second and fourth lines rhyming). This is also known as common meter, folk meter, and hymn meter. Most of her poems can be sung to the tune of almost any church hymn or folk song. Try it!

However, Dickinson experimented with multiple variations on this stanza, such that it is not always recognizable until you scan its meter and compare it to the standard form. She used a popular, conventional form and adapted it to some highly esoteric uses, thus inviting general readers in and then stretching them beyond their familiar expectations. Instead of relying on standard rhymes, she experimented with what is called slant rhyme, approximate rhyme, or off rhyme, to the point where, again, it is not always immediately recognizable. As one critic said, “For Emily Dickinson, the world didn’t rhyme.” Her variations on the ballad stanza and experimentation with rhyme served to reinforce in a formal way the questioning of conventional views that can be found in the content of the poems.

Dickinson is also known for her unconventional punctuation (liberal use of dashes) and capitalization. She did not use titles or standard grammar. Her use of ellipsis and grammatical truncation again reinforces the unconventional content, but also contributes to obscurity. These technical idiosyncrasies and her use of highly unusual imagery and metaphors often create a cryptic opaqueness, which almost defies interpretation. Her riddle poems (“I like to see it lap the miles,” “A narrow fellow in the Grass,” “A route of Evanescence”) are playful versions of her penchant for seeing the world as a cryptic mystery.

Her experimentation with persona, sometimes speaking as a child (“I’m Nobody!”), a male (“A narrow Fellow”), a wife (“I’m ‘wife’—I’ve finished that”), a male lover (“Wild nights--wild nights!”), a voice from the dead (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—“) further disrupts our conventional expectations of identity and social role-playing.

Along with Walt Whitman, Dickinson was the most experimental and technically innovative American poet of the 19th century.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Emily Dickinson's Poetry I

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that Emily Dickinson introduced psychological realism into poetry. Earlier poetry elegized, lyricized, sentimentalized, gothicized, and romanticized psychological states. Dickinson unflinchingly confronted psychological suffering, exploring in depth the emotional experiences most of us seek to avoid: grief, sadness, fear, doubt, loss, instability, and psychic pain. The only negative emotion that she rarely expresses would be anger, though that too can be detected in some of her biting satire.

Yes, she wrote "happy," playful poems, but even they were tinged with negative notes: "I'm nobody!" She rejoiced in nature but was always alone. Her love poems were painful expressions of unrequited feelings, loss, or unsatisfied longing.

General readers and critics have pathologized her as suffering from some kind of mental illness: seasonal affective disorder, depression, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, suicidal tendencies. Certainly she was eccentric; her fellow townspeople in Amherst (MA) referred to her as "the Myth." She was known for her solitary ways and for wearing white.

Truthfully, we don't know if she was mentally ill or not. We do know that our cultural environment stigmatizes mental illness, making it possible to dismiss her poems as "symptoms" of mental illness or neurosis and therefore less credible.

If she was mentally ill, perhaps that condition was a gift, an alternative consciousness which made possible her brilliant critique of conventional views of reality. On the other hand, perhaps she was a perfectly sane, if eccentric, pioneer of the psychic frontier, able to confront directly the mental states that we all experience but prefer to deny.

Poems like "There's a certain slant of light" (about seasonal sadness); "I felt a Funeral, in my brain" (about mental instability); "After great pain a formal feeling comes" (about grieving); "One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted" (about the frightening hidden self) all courageously explore the darkest recesses of the human psyche. The gothic poems of Edgar Allen Poe exaggerated this terrain in an appeal to popular sensationalism, but Dickinson showed realistic restraint, representing our psychic world in terms that we can all recognize as a part of our common human experience. Who has not felt "zero at the bone"?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Waiting for the Barbarians

Published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians by South African author J. M. Coetzee, could be read in the context of apartheid as a strong critique of white supremacy, racism, colonialism, and cultural imperialism. However, it is written as an allegory and could just as well be read in light of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the history of the British Empire, the current superpower status of the United States, or, perhaps, of any ruling political power. As an allegory of political oppression, it is no simple narrative of "boo Empire, yay Barbarians." I was not left with the impression that the arrival of the barbarians would usher in a new age of equality and justice. On the contrary, I was left with the impression of a Hobbesian world of perpetual power struggle, in which oppressor and oppressed just keep changing places--a dark, rather hopeless image of human destiny.

Embedded in the narrative is a psychological study of the protagonist, a magistrate in the Empire, and his relationship with a "barbarian" woman who has been taken prisoner. This relationship mirrors the whole "master-slave" parasitical dynamic in which oppressor and oppressed feed off each other. The woman exercises sexual and psychological power over her "master," to the point where he eventually risks his life to return her to her people. The power dynamic is represented as a complex interaction of social, psychological, and physical forces, in which the "master" becomes as much a prisoner of the system as the "slave."

The setting of the story is an imperial outpost in the midst of a desert wasteland, where lonely humans engage in a continuous struggle for survival, self-gratification, and dominance--an apocalyptic vision with no hope of renewal and rebirth.

The only hope this dystopic novel offers is the possibility that it will raise awareness of our desperate condition to the point we might take action to break the cycle of the power dynamic. If Coetzee's outlook is indeed entirely hopeless, why would he write the novel in the first place? Is he a modern Sisyphus engaged in a never-ending effort to push the boulder of awareness up a hill of futility, or does he hold out hope for us to redeem ourselves through an evolution of consciousness?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God III

So, who is right, Molina or Valentin? Is each of them missing something that the other has? Can they learn from each other? Is the kiss necessarily poisonous? Does the sting always kill? Are the kiss and the sting both necessary to the wholeness of life? of the literary experience? (See previous posts and  Kiss of the Spider Woman 8/16/09.)

Is Molina's universal sense of human tragedy and the possibilities for redemption, of a quest myth that all humans can participate in (regardless of race, gender, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, time or place), of an enduring human conflict between individual fulfillment and the need for love and belonging--is her reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God based on a sentimental fantasy of transcendent human experience, a fantasy that denies the reality of our socially constructed identities? Is the dream of shared humanity a sweet kiss filled with the poison of "false consciousness"? Or, are our socially constructed identities merely individual microcosms of a larger human truth?

Is Valentin's tough-minded analysis of historically specific sociopolitical power systems and the way they produce situated subjectivities; of racist, sexist, and classist struggles for social and economic dominance; of human differences rather than human similarities--is his reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God based on a a myopic, materialist view of human experience, a view that denies the authenticity of transcendent human identity? Is his focus on material power struggles a painful sting that shocks us out of false consciousness? Or, is the social power struggle itself an example of shared human experience that transcends time and place?

Is Janie both (1) a poor African-American woman struggling with power and longing for love in a post-slavery age of racial aspiration, feminism, and economic desperation, and (2) a 20th century African-American female avatar of a universal human hero seeking power, freedom, love, and community? Is this the story of an individual "subject identity"; of a representative African-American woman of her time and place; and is it also an enduring story of the human spirit seeking to fulfill its potential, asserting itself against the obstacles that stand in its way, suffering its trials and tragedies, and ultimately achieving some form of redemption?

Are the kiss and the sting both necessary to the wholeness of life? Of the literary experience? Is Their Eyes Were Watching God a novel embedded in the political struggles of its day AND a retelling of the universal human quest myth? Is it greater for being both? Or less?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God II

How would Valentin read Hurston's novel? (See previous post and Kiss of the Spider Woman 8/16/09.)

He would be rolling his eyes at mythic themes and human universals, irony and contradictions notwithstanding. This is an African-American novel that represents the oppression of African-American women who are the victims of a racist, sexist, classist social system. It challenges that oppression and the psychology of victimhood through a heroine who refuses to accept a subordinate role, asserts her independence, struggles with power, and achieves a sense of relative self-sufficiency. In doing so, however, the novel reinforces the well-established American tradition of individualism and self-reliance. While community is valued, it is primarily by her own efforts that Janie resists oppression and achieves an African-American version of the American dream: economic independence, freedom, and power in a specific social context.

While Valentin would celebrate the novel's resistance to racism, sexism, and classism, he would disapprove of its failure to lift up the power of collective action in the battle against oppression. As a male reader, he might not take note of how the novel captures the dilemma of African-American women whose feminist aspirations are in conflict with their loyalty to African-American men, with whom they share the experience of oppression by a white supremacist American culture. As a Marxist, he would undoubtedly approve of the way the novel realistically depicts marriage as the primary means to social advancement for women and exposes the economic base of the institution of marriage. The role that Janie plays in the death of Joe and Tea Cake merely symbolizes the power struggle at the heart of even the most loving of marriage relationships.

As an anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston would be well-versed in this kind of structural social analysis. Valentin would admire the way she was able to dramatize the functioning of systemic power in fictional form. For another portrayal of both the romance and the hard economic reality of marriage see her short story "The Gilded Six-Bits."

Ah, Valentin, Molina might say, what a political puritan you are to admire the social analysis at the expense of beauty, romance, and the sheer transport of art. And Valentin might reply with the Argentinian version of "Bah, humbug!" (See next post.)

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God

How would Molina read this Depression era novel by Zora Neale Hurston? (See previous post.) Well, she would be captivated by the poetic style and the mythic themes of fertility; the quest for love, power, and identity; the flood; death; transformation; and redemption. She would grieve over Janie's tragic love stories and joyfully celebrate her personal odyssey to freedom and restoration to community.

Perhaps, too, she would note the ironies and contradictions embedded in Janie's mythic quest, asking whether they are universal to the human condition. Is the human yearning for love and belonging always in conflict with the desire for power and freedom, as they seem to be in Janie's case?

As a child of rape whose mother has disappeared, Janie is raised by her grandmother, symbolically orphaned, as the mythic hero often is. Nanny instills Janie with a sense of special destiny, again following the pattern of the traditional quest hero. Janie's special destiny is to redeem her grandmother's (and all her African-American fore-mothers') tragic past in slavery. Unlike the typical male hero, who would set off as an individual in search of his boon, Janie pursues her quest through marriage, inheriting Joe's money and property when he dies. With her new found independence, Janie is free to fall in love and marry the much younger Tea Cake, with whom she finds happiness until he asserts his own independence and control over her. Her life with Tea Cake becomes a struggle between love and power, from which Janie is finally released when Tea Cake dies. In the end she is restored to freedom and community, as she returns to her home place, alone but spiritually connected to Tea Cake's memory, serving as a model for other women who seek both love and freedom.

Would Molina note that Janie's achievement of power and freedom is dependent upon the death of her husbands? Must love be sacrificed in order to achieve one's fulfillment as an individual? Must power and freedom be sacrificed to achieve love and belonging? Does Janie's redemption of slave history require the death of love? Is this struggle between power and freedom as an individual on the one hand and love and belonging on the other an inescapable condition of human experience?

The contradiction is somewhat reconciled by Janie's return to her community of Eatonville. However, though she is welcomed by her friend Phoeby, it is an open question as to how she will be received by the rest of the townspeople.

Perhaps, too, Molina would be mortified by the fact that Janie plays a role in the death of both Joe and Tea Cake. While on his deathbed, Joe actually breathes his last in the midst of a nasty verbal fight with Janie. Later, Janie kills Tea Cake in self-defense when he is attacking her in a maddened state after contracting rabies from a dog bite. Is Janie a determined but innocent victim who overcomes adversity through her own self-assertion, or is she a symbolic murderer who must kill her lovers in order to free herself?

The title of the novel comes from a description of the monster storm that floods out a community in the Everglades and leads to Tea Cake's fatal dog bite. It refers to those who are at the mercy of the elements during the storm, suggesting a kind of fatalism, as humans succumb to the power of nature. However, the novel is also about the human quest for freedom, love, power, and community--self-determination, not fatalism. We are left, though, with a strong sense of what self-determination costs in lives and loves. (See next post.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Kiss of the Spider Woman

Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig (1978) is a novel about two cellmates in an Argentinian prison. Molina is a biological male who crossdresses and identifies as a woman, someone we could consider transgender today. She is in jail for sexual contact with a minor. Valentin is a macho Marxist political prisoner, who has a girlfriend in the "movement," but secretly pines for a woman from a "bourgeois" family. Molina entertains herself and Valentin by recounting her favorite movies, always identifying with the glamourous leading lady. I won't give away the plot, but it is fascinating to see how the two characters interact, develop, and influence each other.

What I will do is use the two characters to illustrate two different ways of reading literature. What Molina values in movies is the romance, the beauty, the emotional experience, and the way they satisfy her unfulfilled fantasies of love, passion, and womanhood. For example, she tells the story of a German film in which the Nazi occupiers of France are the misunderstood heroes, and the French resistance fighters are the villains. All Molina cares about is the romantic love story between the Nazi officer and the beautiful French nightclub singer. Valentin, however, is outraged that Molina would swoon over an anti-semitic "Nazi propaganda" film. All he can see is the political content.

Molina represents the traditional,and perhaps still popular, way of reading for an elevated aesthetic experience and/or a sense of transcendent insight into the universals of the human condition. Art and literature are valued for their ability to rise above time, place, history, and politics to capture what is most enduring in human experience.

Valentin, on the other hand, brooks no such nonsense. Art and literature are products of their time, place, history, and political situations. The pleasure and sense of transcendence they provide are merely ways of seducing us into identifying with particular political points of view. Molina, of course, protests that this kind of political analysis just ruins all her fun.

Let's take "Cinderella." Is it a beautiful, romantic fairy tale that expresses and affirms the universal human yearning for transcendent love? for elevation from the ashes of our lives to the heights of human experience? for transformation of suffering into joy? Or is it a form of propaganda that teaches such social lessons as (1) girls are fulfilled by finding "true love," (2) boys are supposed to rescue girls, (3) it is possible to rise from rags to riches, (4) step-mothers and step-sisters are evil, and (5) girls don't have to act for themselves because there's a fairy god-mother waiting in the wings to perform their magic? Can both ways of reading be valid? Are they completely contradictory or can they be reconciled?

In Kiss of the Spider Woman we might ask, "Who is right, Molina or Valentin? Is each of them missing something that the other has? Can they learn from each other? Is the kiss necessarily poisonous? Does the sting always kill? Are the kiss and the sting both necessary to the wholeness of life? of the literary experience?"

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Frankenstein IV

As stated in the first Frankenstein blog post, the novel reveals cultural anxiety about science, religion, human nature, democracy, even nascent globalization. Globalization? In 1818? Well, the narrative frame of the story is an account by Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer, who just happens to encounter Victor Frankenstein and his "monster" in the Arctic Circle. Walton is on a "voyage of discovery," a geographic adventure which parallels Frankenstein's scientific "voyage of discovery to the land of knowledge." If we read the novel as a psychological allegory, then both these "voyages" can be seen as parallels to the journey into the unconscious that the creature represents.

In any case, a "voyage of discovery" is, of course, a romantic adventure into the unknown. We have seen that Frankenstein's scientific journey leads to disaster when he creates a "monster."
Similarly, our journey into the human psyche reveals a "monstrous" human nature. What about the geographic adventure of Robert Walton and the promise of global knowledge? Walton's ship becomes immured in ice and his men are threatening mutiny. He is forced to agree to their demands to return to England when the ice melts and to abandon their "glorious" adventure. All this happens as the monster boards the ship, murders Frankenstein, who has taken shelter on board, and then disappears into the dark cold as the ice begins to break up. Thus all three voyages end in failure, a conclusion that does not bode well for the future of globalization.

Thus, the novel Frankenstein captures the anxieties of a population about an uncertain future in an age of global expansion when science and democracy are on the rise.

Here ends this blog series on Frankenstein. I shall resist the temptation to explore the theory of homosexual rage in the novel. But if you Google "Frankenstein" and "homosexuality," you might be surprised.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Frankenstein III

One way to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is as a cautionary tale ("this is what could happen if you don't watch out"). If families and other social institutions do not provide the proper care and nurture, cultivation, education, support, humane treatment, and love, democracy as a form of government that empowers "common people" will lead us to ruin. Another way to read the novel, however, holds out little hope for any form of government and projects a dark, tragic vision of human destiny.

Victor Frankenstein is raised with every advantage: loving parents, money, eduction, etc.; yet, despite the qualms of his own conscience, he cannot resist the temptation to pursue his "experiment" of creating human life in the laboratory. His curiosity and boundless desire for knowledge get the better of his good judgement, and the result is the "monster" he cannot control.

To what extent does Frankenstein's "monster" anticipate the Freudian Id of pent up desire, power-seeking, aggression, hostility, fear, anger, and self-gratifying psychic energy? Could the novel be read as a kind of Freudian allegory in which Dr. Frankenstein represents the Ego; his
"monster," the Id; and characters such as his father; his friend, Cherval; and his saintly fiance, Elizabeth; represent the Superego? Is the Freudian theory of a selfish, destructive Id driving the human psyche a modern version of Original Sin?

To what extent does the novel reinforce the Darwinian view that humans evolved from animals and that our brute, animal limbic system is always lurking beneath the surface of our "civilized" facade? The biological construction of a "reptilian brain stem" returns us to the symbolism of the Fall and Original Sin.

While Freud allows for "civilization" keeping us in check, insofar as it succeeds, we are doomed to a psychic life of constant inner conflict and frustration. Similarly, while evolution holds out hope for human progress, we never fully transcend our animal nature. What does this portend for any form of government? Democracy runs the risk of anarchistic chaos and mob violence; authoritarian rule puts the whole nation at the mercy of the power-hungry egos and potentially
destructive neuroses of a few leaders, possibly only one ruthless dictator.

Does the novel present a vision of human tragedy that is unreedemable? Or is the act of writing and publishing the novel an expression of hope that, with proper warning, we can save ourselves?

Oh, and what about that theme of globalization mentioned in the first blog post? What's that about? See the next and final Frankenstein blog post.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Frankenstein II

While Frankenstein is well-known as a pop fiction classic, it has been read and studied extensively as a serious philosophical novel. My previous blog post explored the themes of religion, science, and human nature, suggesting that human nature is a particularly urgent cultural issue in an age of democracy when "common people" can vote and hold office. Could they be trusted to make responsible decisions? What kind of upbringing and education are necessary to insure that they will act wisely and virtuously?

Note how the family background of so many characters is described in some detail. Note that both Elizabeth and Justine are "adopted," raising, again, the issue of nurture vs. nature. In addition to being read as the "Creator," in a religious sense, of the creature, Victor Frankenstein can also be viewed as the "parent." What then are his responsibilities, not only for the act of creation itself but also for the proper care and cultivation of his creature?

Note the role of self-education as well as formal education in the novel. Note the role that books play, not only as literary allusions, but also as key elements in the education of the creature. His development parallels the process of human evolution-- from his animalistic experience of sensations and appetite through learning by trial and error, observation, and imitation; humanization by experiencing emotions and sympathy; language acquisition; and knowledge of human culture and history by reading. His capacity to learn and grow show his potential for greatness. Yet, his experience of rejection, abuse, and injustice twists this potential into destructive rage. All the elements of cultivation were there except parental guidance and humane treatment. ("I am malicious because I am miserable.")

This reading of the novel would suggest that democracy can be successful if family and society properly nurture and responsibly educate their citizens, but if those citizens experience neglect and mistreatment they will lead us to destruction.

There is, however, a counter-narrative in the novel, which returns us to the theme of Original Sin. Is all the nurture and cultivation in the world simply fated to be undone by our "monstrous" animalistic nature and our uncontrollable psychic aggression? See the next blog post.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Frankenstein I

In my first blog post I mentioned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. As I was cleaning out my office this past week, I came across my notes from the last time I taught this work. While many are familiar with popular versions of the story in both print and visual media, I suspect few have actually read the novel unless they were assigned it in a college literature class. In the popular mind, Frankenstein is primarily known as an early scary horror story. Perhaps some are aware that popular images of the "mad scientist," whose clinical experiment gone wrong unleashes horror on the world, comes from Mary Shelley's imagination. No doubt she had her own sources, but her version has had the most lasting impact on popular culture.

Like most gothic romances, this one could be analyzed as a symptom of cultural anxiety, in this case anxiety about science, religion, human nature, the rise of democracy, even nascent globalization. Melodrama is often given a bad rap, but, as an expression of human psychology, it can be indicative of what lurks most urgently under the surface of ordinary social reality.

Note how the novel can be read as a re-enactment of the Fall (Paradise Lost is explicitly referenced). Like the Judeo-Christian God, Dr. Frankenstein creates an "innocent" human (who later wants a wife), full of potential for goodness and greatness, but who ultimately gets out of control and uses his freedom for destructive purposes (sin and evil). Once the creature becomes a monster, it is possible to view him as an allegorical Satan rebelling against his God. In this version of the Fall, however, Frankenstein (God) is held accountable for the monster he has created. At one point the creature says, "I am malicious because I am miserable." Earlier, Frankenstein (God) himself reflects on his own responsibility: "For the first time...I felt what the duties of a creator toward his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness." Unlike the traditional doctrine of Original Sin (humans are sinful by nature), this version suggests that evil is the result of natural human goodness being corrupted by suffering, mistreatment, and ultimately lack of love. It is our social experience ("nurture" or lack thereof), not our inborn "nature" that determines our goodness and greatness (or lack thereof). The new science of human nature puts the religious doctrine of Original Sin into question.

Why should the issue of human nature be so anxiety-producing at this time in history (1818)? Could it be because the decline of traditional monarchies ("divine right") and the rise of democratic institutions put the fate of nations into the hands of "common people"? Were they capable of ruling responsibly or would they lead us to ruin? It might depend as much upon the quality of the society as upon any fixed human nature. In other words, human nature might be maleable and open to being shaped by parenting, by education, and by social experience.

It is no surprise then that issues of human growth and cultivation become major themes of the novel. See the next blog post.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

State of Fear

I just finished reading State of Fear by Michael Crichton (2004) for my Book Group. We don't usually read pop fiction, but, hey, variety is good. So, I have listed six ways this book could be read, some of which overlap: (1) action thriller with no significance beyone idle entertainment, (2) anti-environmentalist propaganda in fictional form, (3) post-modern philosophy dramatized in pop fiction, (4) a fraudulent fictional representation of global warming science, (5) a legitimate fictional challenge to global warming science, and (6) a satire on post-modern philosophy ("Everyone has an agenda except me."--Crichton, the author, says this in the appendix to the book and it could apply to Kenner, the authoritative character of the book.).

I haven't read any other Crichton novels but saw the movie Jurassic Park. So, while State of Fear is more science fiction than gothic, I think it can be traced back through the gothic tradition that exploits popular fears of science and "knowlege experts." All the way to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Unleash those power-hungry scientists and all hell will break loose. Ironically, Crichton uses science and "knowledge experts" (uncritically) to undermine faith in science and "knowledge experts."

So, is the novel deliberate irony (satire) or the usual self-refuting post-modernist critique? Whatever level or angle you read it at, remember it's fiction, not reliable global warming science.
Kind of like Da Vinci Code on the Catholic Church. You may like the bias, but that doesn't make it credible.