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.