Monday, December 20, 2010

"Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"

Robert Frost’s familiar verse (see previous post) may be the best known Winter Solstice poem, though it may not always be recognized as such.

The speaker of the poem makes his stop on “the darkest evening of the year,” presumably the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice. He stops to look into someone else’s woods, woods that are “lovely, dark, and deep.” Is he merely pausing among those promises he has to keep to admire nature’s beauty or does his own heart’s desire to stop, to sleep, to die, resonate with the depth of winter?

Freudians have read a death wish into the poem, but I read it as a human parallel to nature’s cycle, which brings us to the brink of death each December, before reversing itself and returning us to the light. Similarly, we may experience our own seasonal or situational depressions, even suicidal thoughts, but just as our own “promises to keep” restore us to life, so does nature keep its promise to us, to light, and to life.

Yet the tone of the poem is not triumphant, joyful, or celebratory of the return of light and life. Those “promises to keep” seem more obligatory than anticipatory. The speaker sounds more resigned to living than expectant or hopeful

In the same way, nature makes no great show at this time of year. It defers its outward celebration to spring and the full flower of summer. The hard price of joy and hope may be the simple will power it takes to fulfill our responsibilities, meet our obligations, and keep our promises.

Robert Frost was no Pollyanna when it came to representing human experience. His father was an abusive alcoholic, two of his children died early, one at age four and one in infancy, another daughter preceded him in death after long suffering, a son committed suicide, his sister and another daughter were hospitalized for mental illness. (See the Lawrence Thompson biography.) Tragedy, death, and suffering were no strangers to Frost.

His poems about family life were starkly realistic, not sentimental; his nature poems acknowledge the brutality as well as the beauty of nature (see previous blog post on “Design,” June 29).

He would have known how the joyful celebrations at the season of the Winter Solstice—the artificial lights, the decorated trees, the brightly colored gifts, the bountiful feasts—are achieved by many obligatory acts of keeping the promises of the season. He would have known from harsh experience how the annual holiday orgy serves as a colossal cultural and psychological defense against the fears, the losses, the sadness and the resignation that also accompany the season.

Nature keeps its promise according to rote each year. How many of us go through the motions of decorating, shopping, wrapping, caroling, cooking and raising our glasses to toast each other while masking an inner desire for hibernation in woods that are “lovely, dark, and deep”? Yet it is the effort to keep those promises, meet those obligations, and fulfill those responsibilities, the sheer will power of living that is ultimately rewarded by genuine moments of joy, hope, and celebration in life.

Frost’s poem does not capture such a triumphant moment, but it does capture a positive one in the contemplation of “easy wind and downy flake” and in the affirmation of those “promises to keep” and “miles to go” at life’s darkest time.

And so, at this time of the Winter Solstice, whatever tragedies, losses, and mere sadness beset you, may the blessings of life also be upon you.

A Poem for the Winter Solstice

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

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

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

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

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

Robert Frost, 1923

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cry the Beloved Country

A member of my Book Group had taken a week-long course on Alan Paton’s 1948 novel about South Africa and was able to instruct us in the parallels between it and the Biblical Book of Isaiah, in which can be found a redemptive pattern of destruction-repentance/penance-rebuilding/restoration.

The destruction of traditional South African culture and social cohesion, of the tribe, the family, and the individual is represented in the novel through the story of Stephen Kumalo, a Zulu Anglican pastor, whose narrative of loss intersects with that of James Jarvis, a white South African of English descent, whose son is killed by Kumalo’s son in an attempted burglary.

Both fathers, as well as other characters, undergo their own repentance and penance before achieving a renewal of hope through the rebuilding of family and the restoration of the valley in which both the Kumalo and Jarvis families live.

This intertextual relationship between Cry the Beloved Country and Isaiah is convincing and entirely appropriate for the white author and Christian protagonist of the novel. However, it also illustrates how the novel itself, by framing the story in terms of Western religion and Biblical traditions, serves to perpetuate the colonial culture which has caused the destruction of native South Africa in the first place.

Another example of intertextuality can be found in the repeated references to Abraham Lincoln, a hero to the young Arthur Jarvis, who has devoted his life to undoing the injustice that his white ancestors have done to the native land and its people before, ironically, he is killed by one of those native people.

Lincoln also, especially in his Second Inaugural Address, invokes the Bible as he frames the American Civil War in redemptive terms. War is the penance that must be suffered before the destruction that slavery has done to African people in North America can be redeemed. Repentance and forgiveness are also necessary before the nation can be rebuilt and restored. Thus Lincoln refrains from attacking the South or the Confederacy (“With malice toward none, with Charity for all…”), but looks forward with renewed hope to “a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

This parallel of American slavery with South African apartheid similarly frames colonial injustice in Western terms from a white perspective, as does the Biblical parallel of Isaiah. Perhaps no more could be expected from a white author on this subject.

One wonders, though, if it is the repentant white perspective that contributes to a novel in which there are no villains except the generalized colonial history and social system of apartheid (“With malice toward none, with Charity for all…”). Would a black African author have been so generous? Would blame and even malice from such an author be misplaced?

As the young black pastor Msimangu states, “I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” Would a hateful attack on white colonists or on white America be justified by the tragic history of black South Africans and African Americans?

Is the redemption narrative a luxury of wish-fulfillment for the guilty or is it a universal human story of forgiveness and renewal? Or both?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Resistance to Civil Government II

Earlier in this blog (December, 2009, ff) numerous references were made to the redemptive narrative or recovery plot in American literature, whether it be redemption from sin, captivity, enslavement, poverty, disease, suffering, or what have you. The transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller is the best philosophical expression of that American redemptive theme.

The transcendentalists asserted great confidence in the power of the individual to redeem himself or herself from social bondage and the mental shackles that accompany it. By shutting out the voices of family, church, school, and society and turning to nature and one’s solitary self, it becomes possible to hear the voice of a higher, spiritual power in the universe, a power that transcends the everyday reality of social conformity.

Thoreau invokes his “conscience” as the medium through which this higher, spiritual voice speaks to him. It is this innate “moral sense” that has the power to redeem us from machine-like service to state and society and to transform us from “wooden” followers to moral leaders. By our refusal to serve the state or to follow social norms blindly, we can inspire others to heed their own consciences and thereby achieve lasting social change.

A couple of problematic premises underlie Thoreau’s argument. First, he assumes the “conscience” is a spiritual entity in touch with higher truth, as opposed to a Freudian superego which merely enforces what our social experience has taught us. Second, he assumes that if we all heed our consciences we will all hear the same “truth.” These premises are consistent with transcendentalism, but are difficult to support, either by reason or evidence, and impossible to verify. They must be taken on faith alone.

A counter-theme in 19th century American literature is represented by the gothic tradition of Edgar Allen Poe and the tragic vision of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, which explore the dark side of nature and human experience. It is this counter-theme which would raise the specter of the isolated individual, out of touch with reality, listening to an inner voice of insanity rather than divine guidance.

From this perspective, Thoreau’s theory of civil disobedience might be viewed as, at the very least, misguided self-indulgence and, at worst, a dangerous step toward social anarchy and chaos.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Resistance to Civil Government I

One of my former colleagues used to refer to Henry David Thoreau as a “Quaker without a meeting.” In 1846, guided by the “inner light” of his conscience, Thoreau went to jail for refusing to pay his poll tax. However, because he was not an isolated individual but a part of a community, with friends and relatives, someone else paid his tax for him and he was set free after one night behind bars.

Denied this opportunity for heroic martyrdom, Thoreau settled for a lecture and then an essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” now commonly referred to as “Civil Disobedience,” in which he asserts the authority of individual “conscience” over that of civil government. It is perhaps the most extreme expression of American individualism ever written. In effect it is Thoreau’s individual “Declaration of Independence” from the State and from society. “A Quaker without a meeting.”

However, while Thoreau rejected the “meeting,” he allowed the “meeting” to claim him. He had, in fact, not paid his poll tax for several years, but Sam Staples, the town jailer, did not enforce the law against Thoreau until June of 1846, because he was going to have to pay the tax himself. Thoreau spent one night in jail before someone else paid the tax for him. Similarly, Thoreau lived at home with his mother until he got permission to use Emerson’s property for his Walden experiment, and, during the two years in his cabin, he regularly went home for Sunday dinner and took his dirty laundry with him to be washed. Thus the community, of which Thoreau was a part, drew a circle that included him despite his repeated attempts to draw a circle around himself that left the community out.

The whole episode dramatizes an enduring tension in American life—that between radical individualism, on the one hand, and the inescapable power of human social bonds on the other.

Thoreau refused to pay his tax in order to protest the U.S. War against Mexico, slavery, and the government’s treatment of Indians. His protest was almost entirely symbolic and accomplished little or nothing toward ending those injustices. However, the influence of his essay stretched through history to inspire such protestors as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom, ironically, led social movements that accomplished much toward ending injustice. Thus, Thoreau’s individual symbolic gesture of protest, which had little immediate effect, went on to contribute toward major social changes in the next century. Again, he could not escape being included in the human community and participating, however indirectly, in social action.

When the Quaker rejects the meeting, the meeting just moves to the Quaker.

Thoreau was not the first to engage in civil disobedience, nor to defend it. In North America, Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams both suffered much more serious consequences for refusing to conform to Puritan orthodoxy. Both were banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony. They went on to found Rhode Island, but Anne Hutchinson was later killed by Indians. And Angelina Grimke in her “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South” had urged her readers to free their slaves and teach them to read, even if it meant breaking slave state laws. Thoreau’s essay, though, is considered the classic statement and made him famous for a relatively paltry act of protest.

It is possible to view Thoreau as a heroic individualist or as a self-indulgent dilettante, a moral prophet or a spoiled child. In any case, his story and his essay both testify as much to the power of community and society as to the power of the isolated individual, as much to the power of the meeting as to that of the Quaker without one.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"What's God Got to Do With It? Robert Ingersoll on Free Thought, Honest Talk & the Separation of Church & State" edited by Tim Page

Considering the near hostility with which Robert Ingersoll treats religion, it is amazing that he was such a popular and successful travelling orator in the latter half of the 19th century. Considering the role that religion plays in politics today, it is amazing that just over a century ago Ingersoll, not only got away with his attacks on religion, but made a living doing it.

In the debate between science and religion that, either spoken or unspoken, wound its way through post-Civil War America, Ingersoll was unabashedly and unapologetically on the side of science. One way of explaining his success with popular audiences, immersed as they were in traditional Christianity, might be the same as we explain today’s popularity of adulterous, alcoholic, drug-addicted, wife-beating celebrities; reality TV; or shows like Jerry Springer. We are attracted to that which repulses us.

Another, more serious explanation, though, can be found in a study of Ingersoll’s rhetoric. His attack on religion is balanced by an equally strong patriotic fervor for our founding national documents, “The Declaration of Independence” and the U.S. Constitution. However shocked his audiences may have been at his public pronouncements of agnosticism (some would say atheism), they would have identified with his patriotism, his praise for our founding fathers, and his many honorifics on behalf of such founding principles of our nation as individual freedom, pursuit of happiness, and the absence of state religion.

Of these, the separation of church and state was the centerpiece for Ingersoll. Here again, while his audience might have secretly questioned the idea of a godless government, they would have been reassured by Ingersoll’s defense of their freedom to believe and to worship as they chose without interference from that godless government.

In addition, Ingersoll leavened his religious heresy with colorful language, resounding hyperbole, charming humor, and tender sentiment to win over the pious and entertain the faithful.

The harshness of his tone when attacking religion would have been redeemed by the unmistakable joy he took in Christmas (pagan holiday though it may be) and his praise for human love. His provocative persona was softened by the warmth of his humanity.

From my perspective Ingersoll was an advanced thinker for his time but also shallow and naïve. His rejection of religion is wholesale. He points out the harm it has caused but fails to acknowledge the good it has done. He praises secularism without recognizing the dangers of materialism. He upholds freedom of speech as an absolute without consideration for the destructive power of lies, slander, deliberate falsehoods, verbal harassment, and the incendiary effect of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded room.

The breadth and sweep of his thought was greater than its depth and complexity. I would respect his work more had he made some effort to reconcile science and religion, not just put them at odds.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dracula III

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897 at the height of cultural anxiety over changing sexual mores and the social role of women. During the 19th century, a major debate raged over the social role of women, their legal and political rights and their sexuality.

The novel captures some of the ambiguity with which the so-called “new woman” was viewed. While Lucy is almost entirely a damsel in distress, at Dracula’s mercy and completely dependent on others to save her from him, Mina becomes an active participant in the quest to hunt down and defeat Dracula, at least up to a point. Lest her active participation cause too much anxiety, at a certain point her role is diminished, and then, she, in turn becomes Dracula’s victim. As such, it is the men who finally take over the role of saving her and destroying Dracula, except that, under hypnosis (a semi-conscious state), Mina is able to connect with Dracula psychically and provide information on his whereabouts.

Thus, while the novel presents the image of an active, intelligent, capable woman, able to take care of herself and others, it reverses itself and reduces her role before it concludes, as if to reassure its late 19th century readers of women’s traditional role. Similarly, those readers, while titillated by women’s sexuality, needed to be reassured about female modesty and innocence.

One of the most anxiety-producing dimensions of the 19th century debate over the “new woman” had to do with women’s sexuality. “Victorian” women of good reputation were not supposed to have sexual feelings. Sexual desire was reserved for men and for “low” women. Dracula disguises its sexual content by substituting the oral exchange of blood for the genital exchange of semen.

The female vampires who swarm Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle are seductive sexual temptresses, like those “low” Victorian women, who the respectable Harker resists.

Lucy, Dracula’s first victim in London, is portrayed as a more refined and proper temptress who strings several suitors along before choosing one. Dracula attacks her in her sleepwalking state, a symbolic rape, functioning as a displacement of Lucy’s own repressed desire, which can only be expressed while she is an unconscious victim.

The more responsible and capable Mina, while vulnerable to Dracula’s power, is more resistant, suggesting either a weaker sexual desire or a stronger conscious control or both. Ironically, the more traditional woman character is portrayed as more sexually receptive, more akin to the “low” woman, than is the “new woman.”

In any case, woman’s sexuality is thus able to be openly represented but only through indirect means, which displaces it to the monster outside instead of the desire within, thus reassuring us of women’s innocence. Significantly, both women spend much of their time in the novel in a less than conscious state, Lucy asleep and Mina under hypnosis.

The vampire can be traced back to the “incubus” figure in ancient mythology, a supernatural being that rapes women in their sleep. The female “succubus” similarly seduces men as they sleep. These mythical creatures provide an explanation for sex dreams and/or orgasms during sleep, an explanation that conveniently removes responsibility from the sleeper. Perhaps our anxiety over human sexuality is universal.

Then again, perhaps it is both universal and specific to our own historical time and place. Why the upsurge in popularity of the vampire figure during the 1980’s? Could it have had anything to do with the AIDS crisis and increased anxiety over contact with bodily fluids? Why the recent popularity of the Twilight series among teenagers? Again, could it have anything to do with the post-sixties reaction to sexual promiscuity and the rise of abstinence-based sex education programs? The vampire boyfriend who loves you so much he won’t bite your neck is a substitute for the real life boyfriend who loves you so much he won’t ask you for sex.

In all its many variations the vampire seems to speak to our human fear of ourselves.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dracula II

The gothic form represents a melodramatic struggle between good and evil. It is no coincidence that it rose to prominence in Western culture during the 18th century, the so-called Age of Reason in Europe and America, when science, facts, logic, and rationality were held up as authoritative guides to truth and action. As a species, our future progress was unlimited if we would only be led by our rational nature, which takes its place within a rationally ordered universe.

Easier said than done, claims the gothic tale. What if the universe is not rational; what if our human nature is not rational?

Instead of a universe ruled by the supernatural powers of religion (which the Age of Reason presumably had debunked), gothic writers projected a universe in which secular forms of the supernatural—ghosts, monsters, etc.—and (in anticipation of the Freudian Id) a fundamentally irrational human nature assert power over the rational surface of the world.

The classic gothic tale leaves us in terror, not only of the supernatural threats that might be “out there,” but also of the irrational forces “in here.” The detective story, on the other hand, reassures us that rationality, in the form of the carefully observant, thoroughly logical detective, can overcome those dark, destructive forces of nature both within and without. (See previous post.)

Dracula, published at the end of the 19th century, continues both traditions—questioning the power of rationality while at the same time asserting it and thereby capturing the continuing cultural anxiety over the nature of our universe and ourselves. Though their sources and methods are hardly scientific in modern terms, Dr. Seward and Professor Van Helsing are the knowledge experts, who use their expertise to overcome Dracula, but, of course, they cannot protect all of us from all the irrationality that stalks the earth, including the irrationality within our own psyches.

The continuing popularity of the vampire figure testifies to our ongoing cultural anxiety over the power of rationality to save us and over our own human nature. It is notable that in the gothic tradition, the battle between good and evil is presented, not in religious or moralistic terms, but rather in terms of the rational and the irrational. Religious morality has been replaced by more intellectual, psychological, and practical approaches to good and evil.

Nowhere does this create more anxiety than in the realms of human sexuality and the changing roles of women. (See next post.)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dracula I

This blog began with the gothic genre (August, ‘09) and several posts on Frankenstein. A year later I found myself reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) because it came as a free e-book on my Barnes & Noble Nook.

Frankenstein is more true to the original gothic form because the “monster” escapes after leaving a trail of destruction. Dracula is himself destroyed in the end of his novel and thus aligns with the detective story, which was invented by Edgar Allen Poe earlier in the 19th century. The gothic tale, of course, was also a favorite form for Poe.

Both forms typically begin in a familiar (if perhaps ominous) setting in ordinary reality. Then there is an encounter with the irrational—a crime, monster, supernatural event, violent act, or other frightening, unexplainable occurrence—followed by a suspenseful struggle between the forces of the rational “good” and the irrational “evil.” The gothic “horror story” typically ends with the rational protagonist barely escaping destruction or ending up either dead or insane. In either case, the irrational “evil” is still at large. In the detective story, the rational detective solves the crime and the irrational perpetrator is captured, punished, or killed.

Dracula is finally destroyed, not by a “detective” in the classic sense but by a group of well-meaning men, including a vampire expert and a doctor, who, like the classic detective, eventually outsmart him and track him down. One of the young men dies in the struggle, however, and his wife has already been turned into a vampire and herself destroyed by the band of vampire hunters, including himself.

Though Dracula is destroyed, the world is hardly free of vampires, so, while the novel ends with the defeat of one irrational “evil,” there is still a lot more of it lurking out there, as in the traditional gothic form. The reader is thus left with an unsettling combination of reassurance that there are “experts” who can destroy “evil” and terror that they can never put a final end to it.

Both the gothic tale and the detective story pit the irriational against the rational, and both forms embody an ongoing debate over human nature. Are we rational animals, whose higher thinking ability can save us from our destructive irrationality? Or, will our lower, animal nature always reassert its power over our rational selves? (see next post).

Thursday, August 26, 2010


If you are an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-mosque-at-ground-zero type, you will love this 2007 autobiography by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. If you are a liberal, progressive believer in cultural diversity, religious freedom, and inclusion, as I am, you may find yourself sorely challenged.

Presented as a personal narrative, Infidel tells the story of Ali’s Muslim upbringing in Africa and Saudi Arabia, including her genital “excision” as a child; her abuse from both mother and grandmother; her subordination as a woman; her treatment as a sexual object on her wedding night; her escape from an attempted forced marriage (after her previous one was ruled invalid); her education and liberation in Western Europe; her co-creation of the film Submission, protesting the treatment of women under Islam; her escape from death threats, and her continued life under armed protection from those threats.

The title of the book focuses on Ali's identity as a Muslim who has renounced Islam as both a religion and a culture. In much of the narrative, however, she portrays herself as a victim of Islam who vacillates between submission and resistance before “converting” to a Western cultural identity, embracing political and religious freedom, women’s equality, and secular education.

As a convert to Western culture, Ali claims that, based on her experience of both, Western culture is superior to Islamic culture. She then goes on to directly challenge Western cultural relativism and tolerance of practices such as female genital “excisions,” forced marriages, and honor killings based on respect for cultural difference.

Is Ali’s experience under Islam typical or does she generalize her narrow experience to all Muslims? Why does she paint Islam in such extreme terms as a violent and backward religion, despite exceptions documented in her own narrative? Why does she discount the presence and power of moderate Muslims? Is she exacting vengeance for her own ill treatment by her family or has her experience in the West liberated her from the mental shackles of her upbringing? Are Islamic and Western cultures merely different but equal, or is one superior to the other, as some adherents of each would claim? Is there middle ground between absolute claims of cultural superiority and relativistic claims that there are no moral values that transcend religion and culture?

Regardless of how one answers these questions, Infidel will lend credibility to anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-mosque-at-ground-zero sentiments and sorely challenge liberal, relativistic, culturally inclusive world views.

In terms of literary value Infidel is not one of those non-fiction prose works written in a literary or poetic style. Generally servicable and rhetorically effective, the writing seems less literary than one might expect from a personal narrative, with all the expressive opportunities that that form allows. While well-written, the book seems more focused on information and persuasion than on expression or imaginative literary display.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

*Tortilla Flat* and the Ambiguity of Literature

What distinguishes “literature” from “ordinary” language? It’s not just a matter of fiction vs. non-fiction or poetry vs. prose. Fiction can be based on fact and non-fiction can be written in a “literary” style; prose can be poetic and poetry can be prosaic.

Literary language is heightened language, elevated, more figurative, connotative, and ambiguous. Even literature that uses colloquial language does so in a way that sets it apart from everyday speech. Similarly, a literary narrative, whether fantastic or realistic, is larger than life, more selective, more concentrated, and/or more grandiose. Even “realistic” fiction requires certain elements of romance in order to give it compelling interest. And literary non-fiction uses language that is more expressive than factual.

Another characteristic of literature that distinguishes it from ordinary language is ambiguity. Non-literary prose is more denotative, transparent, and communicative of a clear message, whereas literature is more opaque, more figurative, and more open to multiple meanings.

Sometimes those multiple meanings seem to completely contradict each other. A Deconstructionist would say that all texts inevitably, irresolvably contradict themselves, but literary texts (ironically) are more obviously ambiguous, whereas non-literary language appears at least to be more definitive.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck is a work of fiction that presents a group of California “paisanos” in a humorously sympathetic light and simultaneously mocks them by comparing these unlikely heroes to King Arthur’s knights and by satirizing their elaborate rationalizations for sloth, drunkenness, lust, deception, and violence, to name a few of their typical behaviors.

When Danny returns from World War I to discover he has inherited some property, he attracts a number of hangers-on who create a community of irresponsible, pleasure-seeking, though largely harmless, wastrels. Danny’s property, like Arthur’s Round Table, becomes the center of this all-male community for whom women are either sexual objects or damsels in distress.

Ironically the burden of being a property owner leads Danny to depression and possibly suicide. With Danny’s death comes the end of the community and the camaraderie, as the paisanos disperse and “no two walked together.” Property is thus the basis for both the beginning and the end of their temporary social utopia. The fleeting enjoyment of freedom, community, and pleasure is followed by inevitable decline and fall.

Is the novel a socially conscious celebration of the paisano underclass or is it a satire on their wasted lives and their ambivalent relationship to property? Does Danny’s apotheosis as a mythic hero in the local imagination represent a redemptive conclusion or is it a satire on the human ability to create a grandiose fantasy out of a mundane and paltry reality?

Can the novel be read as a modern retelling of ancient myth, with its cycle of creation, fertility, quest and triumph, followed by decline, death, and rebirth, or is it a kind of mock epic that makes the paisanos look ridiculous by comparison to the mythic heroes?

The issue of whether such questions represent the irresolvable contradiction of textuality, as the Deconstructionists would have it, or the complexities of human experience captured in literary form is yet another ambiguity at the heart of literary study.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Power of Poetry

In addition to the power of poetry to create pleasure and appreciation (see previous posts), there is the power of poetry to motivate and inspire, to change consciousness, shape attitudes and even influence behavior.

Each of the haiku quoted in the June 13 post focuses the mind on an image and a vicarious experience which has the power to heighten our sensitivity to the world around us. Poetry can enhance our consciousness of what we observe on a daily basis.

Similarly the poem “Design” by Robert Frost (June 29) may make it impossible for us to look at a white flower, a spider or a moth in quite the same way again. Even more, though, Frost’s poem disrupts the popular view of nature’s innocence and challenges us to confront the predatory behavior at the heart of surviving and thriving in nature. Pretty sentiments about nature’s beauty are dramatically exposed as naïve and superficial. The darker truth that life feeds on life is conveyed with chilling effect. A sentimentalist about nature would be seriously challenged.

“The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window" (July10), depending on how it’s read and by whom, can equally challenge the conservative who opposes government programs to help the poor and protect the environment and the liberal who supports them. Likewise, it can challenge the believer in a random universe, the believer in a universe governed by a grand plan, or the proponent of human free agency.

One of my graduate school professors used to love to quote the following lines from W.H. Auden as an example of unmatched beauty in poetic expression:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

The rhythm and sound effects, the elevated language, and the timeless images of human limitation and transcendence powerfully and poignantly convey the universal human dilemma of aspiration in perpetual tension with mortality.

As we appreciate the power of the poetic composition, as we are moved to identify and sympathize with this lofty expression of our shared human condition, however, all we need ask about to bring us into a change of consciousness is the sexuality of the lovers. Most readers will assume it is a heterosexual love poem, but Auden was a gay man, and in 1937 when the poem was written a homosexual relationship was predominantly associated with sexual deviance and perversion, not to be in any way confused with the emotional grandeur or the noble tragedy of romantic love.

Yet, out of his experience as a lover of men, Auden can write a poem that captures the universal human experience of love that is both transcendent and earth-bound.

Though Auden wrote in a time when his sexual orientation had to be disguised and hidden, his poem serves to raise the experience of same sex love to that of the legendary romantic love stories to be found in heterosexual literature. Such an effect might be powerful enough to move even a homophobic religious right conservative. Or else, such an effect might require an equally powerful resistance from such a reader.

Even if the reader does not know Auden’s sexuality and reads it as a heterosexual love poem, the words complicate idealized notions of romantic love, fidelity, “til death do us part,” and unspotted beauty. At the same time that it undercuts transcendent love, it celebrates love that transcends human imperfection.

Such complexity captured in such concentrated poetic form has the power to challenge both the gay rights advocate and heterosexual marriage proponent alike.

Thus ends this series on the uses, the pleasure, and the power of poetry.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Pleasure of Interpretation in Poetry: A Case Study

In the first of this series of posts on poetry (May 12), the pleasure of interpretation is compared to working a puzzle, playing a game, or solving an elaborate code. What is puzzling about "The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window"(see previous post)?

It might appear at first glance to be about a suicidal woman at the moment of decision--whether to let go or climb back up--because it fits the popular image of a "jumper" from an urban skyscraper or high rise. But is she really suicidal or is this image a metaphor of hanging by a thread from her life circumstances? Why is she described as "her father's son"? Why is she depicted as a kind of earth mother ("She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of/herself")? Why is it the 13th floor?

Is this a social commentary on a poor, urban, Indian welfare mother? Is it about women in general caught between victimization by nature and society on one hand and self-empowerment on the other? Is it about mother nature hanging in the balance between destruction and recovery? Is it about the universal human experience of being caught among the conflicting forces of chance, fate, and choice? One pleasure of interpretation is discovering the multiple dimensions of meaning and their interconnections.

At one level the poem encompasses all of the above interpretations. But, at another, it poses an unresolved (perhaps unresolvable) question: to what extent is the poor, Indian woman a victim of class, race, and gender oppression and to what extent is she a free agent capable of taking responsibility for her own life? To what extent is mother nature doomed to destruction by human exploitation and to what extent is she capable of resiliency, recovery, and renewal despite human destructiveness? To what extent is human fortune and misfortune the result of mere chance in a random universe, to what extent of pre-determined fate, and to what extent of our own free will and effort?

The first two questions situate us in the center of contemporary political debates about government and community support vs. personal responsibility or about environmental crisis vs. environmental resiliency. The third is an enduring philosophical debate going back to the beginning of human thought. Your interpretation may vary depending upon your political and/or philosophical beliefs. To the extent that one takes pleasure in controversy and debate, the openness of poetic interpretation can provide hours of enjoyable and stimulating argumentation.

Another pleasure in interpretation is uncovering so-called "hidden meanings." One highly speculative method of doing this is through psychoanalytic theory. "The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window" might bring to mind the Freudian theory of a universal "death wish." Whatever one might think of this theory it is consistent with Freud's notion of the "pleasure principle." It seems counter-intuitive to associate death and pleasure, but the counterpart to the pleasure principle is avoidance of pain, and death is sometimes, at least in fantasy, a relief or escape from pain. Life circumstances or mental pain (depression) can somethimes be so unbearable that death becomes desirable.

Not only is the dangling woman, whether suicidal or not, flirting with death, but the poem repeatedly references her desire for escape, whether it be into fantasy ("She thinks she will be set free"), memory ("When she was young she ate wild rice..."), dreams ("That's what she wants/to have another child to hold onto in the night, to be able to fall back into dreams"), or nature ("She thinks of...waterfalls and pines...moonlight nights, and cool spring storms"). It also repeatedly hints at the pain of her life: "13th floor," "tenement building," "the two husbands she has had," "dizzy hole of water," "asphalt," "worn levis," "dangling,""cats mewing and scratching at the door," "scream," "cry," "lonliness," "discordant," "teeth break off." Sleep, dreams, oblivion, and death seem perferable to the waking reality of daily suffering.

Images of falling (into death, sleep, dreams, darkness) contrast with images of getting "up," pulling "up," folding "up," and climbing "up," just as the universal death wish is in a continual conflict with the life force, Eros, and the desire for power. Read this way, the poem becomes an allegory of the human psyche in constant tension between the desire for oblivion and the desire for consciousness.

Interpreting poetry through various theoretical lenses, whether psychoanalysis, Marxism, feminsim, or deconstruction, is the most intellectual level of pleasure afforded by the study of poetry.

"The Woman Hanging from the 13th Floor Window"

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor
window. Her hands are pressed white against the
concrete moulding of the tenement building. She
hangs from the 13th floor window in east Chicago,
with a swirl of birds over her head. They could
be a halo, or a storm of glass waiting to crush her.

She thinks she will be set free.

The woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the east side of Chicago is not alone.
She is a woman of children, of the baby, Carlos,
and of Margaret, and of Jimmy who is the oldest.
She is her mother's daughter and her father's son.
She is several pieces between the two husbands
she has had. She is all the women of the apartment
building who stand watching her, watching themselves.

When she was young she hate wild rice on scraped down
plates in warm wood rooms. It was in the farther
north and she was the baby then. They rocked her.

She sees Lake Michigan lapping at the shores of
herself. It is a dizzy hole of water and the rich
live in tall glass houses at the edge of it. In some
places Lake Michigan speaks softly, here, it just sputters
and butts itself against the asphalt. She sees
other buildings just like hers. She sees other
women hanging from many-floored windows
counting their lives in the palms of their hands,
and in the palms of their childrens' hands.

She is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
on the Indian side of town. Her belly is soft from
her childrens' births, her worn levis swing down below
her waist, and then her feet, and then her heart.
She is dangling.

The woman hanging from the 13th floor window hears voices.
They come to her in the night when the lights have gone
dim. Sometimes they are little cats mewing and scraching
at the door, sometimes they are her grandmother's voice,
and sometimes they are gigantic men of light whispering
to her to get up, to get up, to get up. That's what she wants
to have another child to hold onto in the night, to be able
to fall back into dreams.

And the woman hanging from the 13th floor window
hears other voices. Some of them scream out from below
for her to jump, they would push her over. Others cry softly
on the sidewalks, pull their children up like flowers and gather
them into their arms. They would help her, like themselves.

But she is the woman hanging from the 13th floor window,
and she knows she is hanging by her own fingers, her
own skin, her own thread of indecision.

She thinks of Carlos, of Margaret, of Jimmy.
She thinks of her father and of her mother.
She thinks of all the women she has been, of all
the men. She thinks of the color of her skin, and
of Chicago streets, and of waterfalls and pines.
She thinks of moonlight nights, and of cool spring storms.
Her mind chatters like neon and northside bars.
She thinks of the 4 a.m. lonliness that has folded
her up like death, discordant, without logical and
beautiful conclusion. Her teeth break off at the edges.
She would speak

The woman hangs from the 13th floor window crying for
the lost beauty of her own life. She sees the
sun falling west over the gray plane of Chicago.
She thinks she remembers listening to her own life
break loose, as she falls from the 13th floor
window on the side of Chicago, or as she
climbs back up to claim herself again.

--Joy Harjo

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Technical Appreciation of Poetry, For Example in Frost's "Design"

The last post and the Sept. 20, 2009, one on Emily Dickinson address the technical side of poetry in terms of versification, metrics, imagery, expectation, and surprise. It is tempting to choose a complex poem to illustrate all the different ways that word choice, sentence structure, imagery, figurative language and even punctuation are used by poets as rich resources of expression and suggestion. Instead I’ll choose a “simple one” to show a few examples.

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth—
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning, right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth—
A snow-drop spider, a flower like froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?—
If design govern in a thing so small.
(“Design” by Robert Frost)

Before analyzing the color symbolism, metaphors, and nature imagery, it is worth noting how the poem begins in a familiar, almost offhand, voice, “I found,” suggesting a casual encounter on a roadside walk. Yet the language becomes increasingly formal as the poem goes on until we get to words like “kindred” and “thither” in the last few lines. Is this merely accidental or does the shift in level of language parallel the shift from casual observation to philosophical speculation in the content of the poem? And, if the latter, is it merely an unconscious fitting of language to thought or is it part of the intentional crafting of the poem? Regardless of how we answer this question, it is remarkable how word choice can create different expressive voices appropriate to what is being said.

Similarly, the sentence structure grows increasingly complex as each stanza develops. The first three lines, though tightly structured, constitute a relatively straightforward statement. But the sentence continues piling on appositives and modifiers until it becomes densely complex.

Of the three questions in the second stanza, the second is the most straightforward grammatically but uses the most formal language. The first question separates the appositive from its antecedent noun (“flower”), creating a jarring effect grammatically that parallels the seeming contradiction of describing a flower as both white and blue at the same time. The third question uses “appall” as an intransitive verb, an unconventional, if not obscure, expression, which sounds almost archaic, once again using language that reinforces ancient philosophical questions about chance and fate and longstanding religious questions about the moral goodness of nature, including human nature. Do we live in a purposeful universe of “design” or do we live in a random world of accident and chance? And, if it is orderly and purposeful, what does it mean if death and suffering are built into the design? The unstated question is “What kind of designer would design such a world 'to appall'?"

The dashes create an informal, conversational effect, but the tightly structured, highly composed sentences contradict that style, sounding more educated, formal, and complex. The tension of opposites again parallels the juxtaposition of casual observer and philosophical thinker or serious moralist.

Other examples of opposition include the irony of “assorted characters of death and blight” being “mixed ready to begin the morning, right” (emphasis added) and the white imagery in contrast with “a witches’ broth” and “dead wings.”

White is a conventional symbol of purity and innocence (at least in Western European based culture), but in this poem the white spider, flower, and moth represent “death and blight.” As Melville reminds us in “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter of Moby Dick, white can just as easily be associated with the pallor of sickness and death or the burial shroud as with purity and innocence or the wedding gown.

“What had that flower to do with being white…?” is a question with multiple meanings. The heal-all is typically blue but occasionally white. Consider the coincidence of the rare white heal-all serving as the stage for the white spider’s predatory attack on the white moth. Is it mere chance or part of the orderly design and purpose of nature? If the latter, it is a “design of darkness” serving to “appall” our naïve sense of God’s goodness and nature’s innocence. How innocent is innocence if “death and blight” are integral to its nature? The color symbolism of white, blue, and “darkness” in their varying relationships is what gives those questions their poetic power.

Another irony is the heal-all, a flower known in folk culture for its healing power, serving as a natural death bed for the moth.

In addition to irony and symbolism, metaphor abounds. Three are obvious similes: the moth being held up “…like a piece of rigid satin cloth,” the “assorted characters…like the ingredients of a witches’ broth,” and the “dead wings carried like a paper kite.” Lest these comparisons be thought frivolous poetic flourishes, consider the association of “rigid” with death, of a satin cloth with a death shroud, of witches with evil (a more cultural than natural comparison), of a kite with playfulness (ironically contrasting with the “dead wings”). Other metaphors include the moth being “steered” and “design” governing “in a thing so small,” metaphors which suggest a hidden power with a dark purpose.

Finally, we are led by almost every technical device available to the poet to conclude that this seemingly simple poem is a dark allegory of Mother Nature who brings both life and death, of “original sin,” and of innocence that cannot be separated from evil. And if the inseparability of good and evil “govern in a thing so small,” what are the implications for human nature and for the universe at large?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Sensory Pleasures of Poetry

There is no purer way to appreciate the sensory pleasures of poetry than through nonsense verse:

Twas brillig and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gymble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. –Lewis Carroll

Regardless of the meaning, the repetition of sounds (“toves” and “borogoves,” “gyre and gymble,” “wabe” and “outgrabe”) provides pleasure to the ear. As do “brillig and “slithy,” repeating the liquid “l” and rhyming the two different “i” sounds.

The predominantly iambic (unstressed/stressed syllables) tetrameter (four stressed syllables to a line) broken by two strong spondees (two stressed syllables in a row) in the fourth line offers a combination of regular rhythm and unexpected variation, which avoids both a sleep-inducing sing-songy effect and the jarring cacophony of disordered sounds.

My favorite limerick growing up, partly because I was so skinny as a youth, offers an irresistible combination of mirthful imagery, delightful rhythms, and playful repetition:

There was a young lady from Lynn
Who was so exceedingly thin
That when she assayed
To drink lemonade
She slipped through the straw and fell in.—Anonymous

There’s something about that final “fell in” that is both natural and unexpected at the same time. It is quite a trick to combine both the satisfaction of expectation and the pleasure of surprise.

The image of the skinny lady falling through a straw is entertaining because it is both ridiculous and somehow logical. The lady and the straw have nothing logically in common, except that they are both thin, a comparison that takes a poetic imagination to see.

At the level of imagery, sensory pleasure overlaps with the fun of mental gymnastics.

No greater pleasure in imagery can be found than in Japanese haiku. The vicarious sensory experience, whether it be visual, auditory, or tactile, is characteristically concentrated and intense:

On a withered branch
A crow has settled--
Autumn nightfall.—Basho

A lightening-gleam
Into darkness travels
A night-heron’s scream.—Basho

What piercing cold I feel!
My dead wife’s comb in our bedroom,
Under my heel…--Buson

And each image suggests a story, whether it be of the rhythms of nature or of human drama. Stories provide pleasure by imitating life, expressing human emotion, and presenting them in such a way as to render order and beauty out of raw experience.

The dying branch, the settling crow, the closing year, and the falling night put the universal story of decline into parallel form. The flash of lightening in the dark similarly mirrors the heron’s scream breaking the silence of night, again imaging the universal story of sudden contrast and unexpected surprise. And the physical sensation of a cold comb under a widower’s heel captures the story of a cold marriage bed, as well as of the cold grave.

The chaos of actual experience is tamed and made, not only bearable, but beautiful.

Such are the sensory pleasures of poetry.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Uses of Poetry

I’ve loved poetry since childhood just for the pleasure of it—the sounds, rhythms, images, stories, wordplay, not to mention its magical way of saying the unsayable, expressing the inexpressible, and thinking the unthinkable.

Studying poetry, I learned to appreciate the technical side of it, the art and craft, the virtuoso performance, the display of skill, the tricks and verbal sleight of hand that it took a trained eye to see.

As a professional in literary studies, I learned to apply every theory from psychoanalysis to deconstruction to Marxism to feminism to draw out hidden meanings and significance that only a trained mind could find. Poetry analysis was as pleasurable as working a crossword puzzle, playing a complicated hand of Bridge, or solving an elaborate code.

Yet I also learned to recognize and appreciate the power of poetry, not only to provide hours of pleasure, but also to change consciousness, to motivate and inspire, to shape attitudes, and even to influence behavior. Such power is not innocent entertainment, but a power to be understood, reckoned with, and sometimes resisted, a power calling for a critical mind as well as a strong sensibility, social awareness as well as psychological acuity.

And such skills developed and honed in the study of literature could be practically applied to the crass poetry of advertising, to political discourse, to public media and all attempts to use language with design. Practice in uncovering the hidden meanings of poetry could help one expose the hidden agendas and subliminal messages of everyday rhetoric.

From delight to enlightenment, from the sublime to the ridiculous, poetry lends itself to the full range of verbal experience.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Daisy Miller and Doubt

Now that I have Netflix, I’ve been watching a lot of movies, some of which remind me of famous books (see previous post). This time it was the 2008 film Doubt about a very severe nun who accuses a priest of child abuse on very flimsy, though compelling, evidence. The priest resigns his position, which the nun takes as his confession, but in the end she breaks down and confesses to another nun that she has “such doubt” about his guilt.

Most friends that I talked to about the film thought the priest was guilty, but I was not so sure; indeed, at the end of the film, I leaned toward his innocence, at least in this case.

The film is deliberately ambiguous, as are many great works of literature. I was struck by the theme of gossip and the use of the wind blowing around the autumn leaves as a symbol of suspicious talk, speculation, and allegations about others based on ambiguous appearances.

I was reminded of the 1878 novella Daisy Miller by Henry James about a young American woman in Europe who is destroyed by malicious gossip about her sexual activity, gossip that is based on unconventional, but completely harmless, behavior.

Daisy dies of malaria, which she catches while out at night unchaperoned with a man at the Roman Coliseum. Literally, “malaria” means “bad air,” a symbol, like the wind in Doubt, of malicious gossip. Like those who were sacrificed in public at the ancient Coliseum, Daisy serves as a modern-day sacrificial victim of social judgment.

Whenever I have taught the book, it has stirred heated discussion, some seeing Daisy as an innocent victim, others seeing her as a shameless “flirt” and “tease,” if not entirely a “slut.” Some readers complain about the ambiguity: “Why can’t he say what he means?” “Why leave us in such doubt?”

Indeed, what is the value of ambiguity and doubt, whether it be in literature or film? My answer is that the fictional situation is a rehearsal, if you will, or reenactment, of our actual life experience, so often full of ambiguity and doubt, despite our frequent, sometimes desperate, clinging to certainty.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, and The Last King of Scotland

Speaking of Westerners seeking adventure in non-Western countries (see previous post), I recently watched The Last King of Scotland, a film based on the book about Uganda by Giles Foden, and was reminded of the novel Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. When I googled the two titles, I got 12,400 hits. When I googled those two titles along with Apocalypse Now, a contemporary film roughly based on Heart of Darkness, I got 820 hits. Obviously, I am hardly the first to see the parallels between Conrad’s 1899 novel about the Belgian Congo, the 1979 film about the Vietnam War, and the 2006 film about brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

All three feature a white Western male who goes to a non-Western country and confronts, not only the “darkness” to be found in a foreign land but the darkness to be found in his own heart. Critics have long debated whether Kurtz’s final words “The horror! The horror!” in Heart of Darkness refer to the native culture, European imperialism, human corruption, or all three. Both he and Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now lead Western expeditions into non-Western territories under banners of heroic idealism and proceed to self-destruct as they confront their own roles in the raw exploitation of native resources, culture, and people.

In The Last King of Scotland a Scottish doctor exploits post-colonial Uganda to satisfy his own fantasies of adventure, accidently becomes the private physician to Idi Amin, and finds himself an unwitting accessory to the brutal dictator’s savage murder of his own people.

Despite the differences, all three works dramatize the disillusionment that ensues when the white Western “heroes” discover their own human capacity for corruption and, by implication, the capacity of their Western homelands for exploitation and brutality under the guise of idealism and innocence.

Similarly, Heart of Darkness, a classic Western novel that confronts the universal theme of the darkness in the human heart and the political theme of evil in the heart of Western imperialism, has itself been critiqued as a literary masterpiece that perpetuates the racist attitudes and stereotypes of its day.

To what extent does The Last King of Scotland, by focusing on the horrific acts of Idi Amin, perpetuate the popular and well established Western myth of African savagery? By comparison, The Camel Bookmobile (see previous post) offers a much more balanced view of the non-Western world.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Camel Bookmobile

This 2007 novel by Masha Hamilton stirred some debate in my Book Group, mostly over whether pre-literate cultures should be left alone so they can preserve their traditional way of life or whether individuals in those cultures could benefit from access to the opportunities that literacy and formal education can provide in a global society.

Afterwards, I went back to see if I could find a basis for claiming that the novel itself takes a position one way or the other.

The novel does not romanticize the experience of living "close to nature." Its opening chapter dramatizes the attack of a hyena on a toddler in Northeastern Province, Kenya, leaving the child severely disfigured for life. Throughout the novel, the local nomadic tribe in Mididima struggles with hunger and the fear of an oncoming drought. Yet, the tribe and its traditional ways have survived for much longer than most human societies, much as the ubiquitous mosquitoes, referenced in headings before each of the six parts of the book, have survived since long before homo sapiens appeared.

A good case can be made that the novel supports the decision of the tribal leaders to move away from the camel bookmobile, a lending library run by a white, American woman librarian from Brooklyn. Just as the coming drought threatens the physical survival of the tribe, the coming of literacy and exposure to Western culture threatens the survival of tribal traditions. Yet, the American librarian has formed human bonds with members of the tribe, including a romantic bond with a male teacher, whose wife wants a divorce so she can marry someone else. The librarian offers educational opportunities to a young girl who longs to see the outside world and to that disfigured boy who shows a remarkable artistic talent that only the American librarian seems to recognize and value.

The conflict between tradition and change is a major theme of the novel. In the end it seems that tradition wins out, as the American librarian is left grieving the loss of the tribe that has moved away. Yet the seeds of literacy and exposure to the outside world have been planted, and the reader senses that the internal tribal struggle between tradition and change will continue, whether the camel bookmobile finds the tribe in its new location or not.

And so I concluded that the novel takes an ambivalent stance in the debate over preservation of tradition vs. openness to change. For every loss of tradition, there is the possibility of gain in the embrace of new ideas and practices. For every gain in individual and social opportunity there is the loss of traditional stability and cultural cohesion.

The triumph of tradition at the end of the novel is temporary. Change is inevitable and will overtake the tribe eventually. When that happens there will be losses to grieve, but there will also be gains to celebrate.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

Speaking of the American success story (see previous post), Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography is a classic of the type.

Franklin was one of the first to secularize the American personal narrative, which, whether it took the form of historical adventure (Columbus, John Smith), spiritual autobiography, captivity narrative (see post on Mary Rowlandson), or travel narrative, until the 18th century could not be separated from the religious world view.

While Franklin somewhat perfunctorily invokes the "Creator" and "Providence," his primary focus is on material success in this world, not salvation in the next. He quite explicitly proclaims himself a Deist, not a traditional Christian, and seems to view morality in practical, utilitarian terms, rather than in terms of divine command. He offers himself as a role model and his autobiography as a kind of self-help book for those who want to emulate his success. And success is not the result of God's grace so much as the result of one's own efforts. "God helps those who help themselves" is one of the maxims in Poor Richard's Almanac.

As one of the first, now iconic, American success stories, Franklin establishes the classic formula: poverty and obscurity--hard work and virtue--opportunity--wealth and fame. Franklin did not actually start out in poverty. He was born to a middle class family and was apprenticed to his older brother, a printer. He ran away, though, and did start out in Philadelphia with no home, no job, and just a few pence in his pocket. From there he rose to become a successful businessman, writer, inventor, civic leader, and eventually delegate to the Constitutional Convention and ambassador to France. And, yes, he was very hard-working and ethical. However, he also was very lucky. His Autobiography records as many coincidences in his favor as it documents his work ethic.

As for virtue, he confesses to having frequent "Intrigues with low Women that fell in [his] Way." His "Project of arriving at moral Perfection" is, perhaps, the best known part of the Autobiography. It is a masterwork of subtle satire, revealing both his moral seriousness and his tongue-in-cheek mockery of moral seriousness. What could be less humble than his precept for the virtue of humility: "Imitate Jesus and Socrates"?

The autobiography is a literary form that allows writers to present themeselves as they want to be seen rather than as they truly are, though a certain amount of candor is necessary to establish credibility. And Franklin is very successful in creating an image of himself that has stood the test of time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Raisin in the Sun

The other day I attended a meeting where people of color talked about problems they face living in the local community. They told stories of their experiences with individual and stystemic racism in the schools, the job market, and the criminal justice system; limited access to public transportation; lack of adequate and affordable housing; and barriers in the health care system.

Having grown up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement and having seen significant progress in race relations during my lifetime, I found it extremely disheartening to hear these stories of racial prejudice, cultural ignorance, and institutional norms that continue to favor whites over people of color. It almost felt like we were living in an unofficial and informal system of apartheid. It was hard to believe that one year ago we were celebrating the inauguration of our first US President of color.

The 1957 play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry seems a lot less dated to me after hearing these stories. When it opened in 1959, it was the first play by a black woman ever produced on Broadway. Its dramatization of an African American family struggling with economic deprivation and aspiration, racial discrimination, cultural pride, and black manhood "sometime between WWII" and the late 1950's seems painfully similar to stories I heard from people of color a few days ago in 2010.

For all the progress I have seen in the last fifty years, it seems there has been just as much persistence of the same old patterns.

The title of Hansberry's play comes from a poem by Langston Hughes published in 1951:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Americans love the redemptive narrative and will prefer the stories of emancipation from slavery, of civil rights victories, and of the achievement of the American dream by such as Barak Obama, but the tragic stories of dreams deferred are just as much a part of our history and culture. We just don't want to hear them.

A Raisin in the Sun is itself a redemptive narrative. We could no doubt never have made the progress we have on racial issues without hope and faith on the part of people of color, but all Americans need to remember that for every triumphant story there are hundreds of tragic ones; for every American success story there are hundreds of unsung stories of American failure.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson

In a previous post (see The Danish Girl), the captivity narrative was cited as one example of the American story of redemption. Mary Rowlandson's bestselling personal narrative of this popular genre could also be studied as a spiritual autobiography. The wife of a minister, Mary Rowlandson and three of her children, were captured by Narragansett Indians on February 10, 1676, during King Philip's War. The youngest child, six-year-old Sarah, died within a week. Separated from her other two children, Rowlandson was finally ransomed on May 2, 1676; several weeks later Joseph, 14, and Mary, 10, were also released.

In her account, Rowalandson attributes her captivity to punishment from God for such sins as smoking and to a test of her faith. She holds fast to her Bible (which one of the Narragansetts had restored to her) and sprinkles her account liberally throughout with scriptural quotations. The narrative takes her from captivity, through suffering (especially the death of her child), remorse, faithfulness, and finally restoration to freedom, which she interprets as proof of God's forgiveness and blessing.

During her nearly three months of captivity, she complains bitterly of the food she is given to eat and other physical conditions of her ordeal. Every event is interpreted through a Biblical lens and the doctrine of Providence, that is, God controls history and all events are the result of His will. Though He puts His faithful to the test, ultimately He rewards His followers and punishes ungodly heathens. With this world view, she has a tough time explaining why the "heathens" manage to escape their English pursuers time after time. And when the "heathens" behave kindly toward her, it is not because of their own inherent capacity for goodness but because God was protecting her and made them do it. It is never quite clear why God gets the credit for their good behavior, but their bad behavior is their own fault, the result of their "heathenism."

The captivity narrative is a uniquely American genre and enjoyed considerable popularity both in North American and in Europe into the nineteenth century. It became secularized in such frontier novels as The Last of the Mohicans and other Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper, not to mention Hope Leslie by Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Though Cooper and Sedgwick reinforced many negative stereotypes of native people, they were much more sympathetic than Rowlandson. The ultimate irony though was the use of the genre by African American authors of the slave narrative (see previous post on Frederick Douglass), in which white Christians like Mary Rowlandson replace the ungodly "heathens" as the cruel captors.

Mary Rowlandson can be viewed as a heroic, Christian survivor of a horrific captivity during a brutal war, or as an ethnocentric white, Christian supremecist during early colonial America, or both. Her narrative helped raise the profile of white women in an oppressively patriarchal culture AND it helped reinforce Eurocentric oppression of native people--one example of many in the long history of American contradictions.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I wish I knew more about Afghan mythology, literature, and history so that I could place this novel by Khaled Hosseini in the context of its own cultural heritage. The title comes from a poem in praise of Kabul by an Afghan poet I've never read. What struck me in reading the novel was how well it can be related to world mythology and Western literature, of which I do know something.

Structurally, the novel brilliantly interweaves the stories of two Afghan women characters from different generations trying to survive and thrive in a patriarchal, polygamous society torn by civil war and outside invasions, first by the Soviet Union in 1979 and later by the United States in 2001.

The two women's stories begin separately, intersect, then pivot away from each other in a violent murder, which leads to the older woman's execution and the younger one's liberation. At the heart of this divergence is the older woman's self-sacrifice, which re-enacts her own mother's suicide. When Mariam murders the husband that she shares with Laila, as he is beating the younger woman, Laila is freed from an oppressive marriage and reunited with her first love, whose child she has already borne. One story ends in tragedy, the other in renewal and redemption from an oppressive life.

The novel could be read as historical drama or feminist protest, but the theme of human sacrifice connects it to a universally recurring mythological, religious and human story of birth, quest and trial, sacrifice, and renewal. This pattern plays out in the cosmic story of creation, apocalypse, and re-creation; in the divine narrative of birth, mission, sacrifice, death, and resurrection; in the hero myth of youthful possibility, quest, trial, encounter with death, and apotheosis.

In religious traditions, sacrifice is the means of reconnection to divine origins. The cleansing flood restores the original divine purpose, the death of the god renews human history, the hero's sacrifice saves the human community. In A Thousand Splendid Suns Mariam's sacrifice raises her own tragic life to a higher purpose, that of saving Laila and freeing her to a higher life of authentic love, family, and belonging. Just as those thousand splendid suns were made possible by a thousand dark nights.

Similarly, Odysseus must descend into Hades before he can be restored to his home and family, the Shakespearean tragic hero must die before the corruption of his nation can be cleansed, Jane Austen's heroines must suffer loss and rejection before finding romantic fulfillment, Billy Budd's hanging is necessary to maintain the social order, and the American hero must experience deprivation before achieving the American dream.

Sacrifice is the necessary evil out of which springs human fulfillment. To what extent does our individual happiness depend upon the sacrifice of others? To what extent does the happiness of others depend upon our own self-sacrifice?