Monday, October 30, 2006

Post-modern films, and another stupid thing I think.

PV's Post-modern Films
Skip the philosophical treatises; if you want to understand post-modernism, just watch these movies.

Wayne's World: characters speak to the camera, make many references to the fact that they are in a film, and then guide us through three endings.

The Matrix: the major theme of post-modernism is that the image actually hides the fact that there is no substance underneath it. What film highlights this theme more prominantly? By the way, I'm one of the six people on earth who liked the sequels better.

Moulin Rouge: A story within a story, but the outer story actually makes the content of the inner story, and the inner story actually shapes the content of the outer story. Got that?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show: the participatory nature this film has developed blurs boundries between the work itself and the viewer.

Mulholland Dr.: Perhaps the furthest reaches of the themes of po-mo?

Annie Hall: I've documented pretty plainly here that I'm not a big Woody Allen fan, but there's a certain post-modern element to his work, most noticeably in this movie.

Tristram Shandy: a Cock and Bull Story: Or perhaps this reaches further?

By the way, will it be totally forgotten that for a 3-5 year period of time Dana Carvey was the most popular comedian in America? Do people who were around during that time even believe it? Is there real evidence of this period? But it did happen.

The stupid thing I believe.
Frankenstein is, perhaps no more and no less, than a re-working of Paradise Lost.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dr. Frankenstein's tragic flaw

It is not, as you'd suspect, hubris. Frankenstein is not "playing God": he should not be condemned for attempting to understand the source of life, nor for attempting to create life.

His tragic flaw is cowardice: he is unable or unwilling to confront the consequences of his science. His sin is not in creating the monster but in labeling it a monster; his sin is in abandoning and rejecting his creation the moment it frightened him.

And this is the theme that human beings must carry with us through all of our scientific endeavors.

Monday, October 23, 2006


There are "important books. I would define an important book as either having a direct impact on the world (the writings of Marx or Luther, The Jungle), or having a wide impact on the realm of ideas, so that the way we think about things is affected by the book (Frankenstein). So there is no doubt there have been important books.

But have there been important films? If you think so, please provide me examples.

I do not include as "important" those works of art that change only the way other works of art are made or thought of. That's insular. I'm talking about "important" in the blood, bone, and guts world or important in the realm of ideas about living in the world. I'm also not in this case arguing about books that are personally important. All individuals can cite works that impact and change them and their worldviews. I would only include the work as important if many people could cite the impact.

The Stupid Thing I Think About Sartre's No Exit
I believe this is the most misinterpreted play ever written. People glob onto the obvious line "Hell is other people" and believe this is the main theme of the play. Look closer; it's not. In the play, hell is the guilt and remorse an individual feels for knowingly committing "sins," not in the divine sense of right and wrong but in breaking individual integrity. Read the play and tell me why I'm wrong.

Academic Freedom and Meaning
I see three fundamental flaws in the arguments of conservatives like David Horowitz and Tucker Carlson that complain that liberal college professors are forcing their views on students, teaching students that America is bad, etc.

1. Classroom: these people don't have an understanding of pedagogy, the college classroom, or the current attitudes of young Americans. As a professor, I face dull-eyed students, long silences, and lack of energy frequently in the classroom. In order to engage students into thinking and discussing issues, I will sometimes express extreme viewpoints simply to provoke thought and response.

2. Adulthood: college students are not "kids" who are being inflicted with the brainwashing of a professor's political views. They are adults. They should have the ability to think critically about what they are taught.

3. History: would these people prefer that the history of racial discrimination and injustice in America be ignored? This history includes slavery (and the institutional racism that has lingered since), the genocide of Native Americans (and the institutional racism that has lingered since), and the less well-known treatment of Asian-Americans (biased immigration laws, internment camps, exploitation of labor for mines and railroads). And should U.S. foreign policy post-WWII be filtered only through a pro-American viewpoint?

Why the Aliens can Destroy Us
Here is a new feature at Costanza Book Club. I think that when the aliens come to destroy humanity and take earth for themselves, they could make a legitimate argument that humankind deserves to be destroyed. The Holocaust alone is evidence that people are lousy and maybe another sapient species would do better (though of course if they had to wipe us out in order to try do better, then they would be no better than we are, but that's the paradox of this new gimmick). I intend to be far less grave and cite only artistic examples for the aliens to use to justify wiping us out.

In the film The Producers, the song "The King of Broadway" was cut from the film but "That Face" was left in. This is the greatest travesty in the history of art and entertainment.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Generational Tastes and All-time Evaluation

Re-reading Frankenstein, it strikes me that many contemporary readers must see the style, language, and general writing as second-rate. The book was written with the conventions and language of Romanticism; it came before the Realism Revolution of the novel and well before the subsequent Modernist Revolution. The twentieth-century reader's tastes for what is good writing and good fiction were formed by realism and modernism; indeed, from the perspective of realism and modernism, the language of Romanticism is second-rate.

But that's the thing about tastes. The preference for the twentieth century style of writing (invented, some would say, but people like Flaubert, Twain, and James) is a preference, a taste. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is an inherently superior style of writing. A contemporary of Shelley would not have appreciated the novel written in the style of Flaubert (and indeed, if Shelley were born a hundred years later and written the same book, she may have written it entirely in the style of realism. Or not at all. But then, considering Frankenstein's impact, it's hard to really predict the history of literary tastes and moods without it).

In the 19th century, there was a critic who said that the slave narrative was the only authentic American literary genre; the implication was that the slave narrative was superior literature. This is the century that gave us Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickenson, and other titans of American literature. These are now more respected names than the authors of any slave narratives. Tastses change. A literary critic of one generation cannot possibly predict what writers will be thought well of by future generations, or what writers will be forgotten in a century, or what books will be considered masterpieces to the ages. We don't know; tastes change too quickly.

So if you read a Gothic novel, don't assess it by the standards of what makes good writing today.

Indeed, sometimes tastes change to such a degree that writers forgotten for decades or centuries suddenly come back into vogue. T.S. Eliot brought back Donne and the metaphysics; that type of poetry fit the tastes of modernism. Post-modernist thinkers look backward to literature before realism/modernism to works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy to find earlier examples of post-modernism. Tastes evolve, styles evolve, and it is difficult to know what will last.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A sci-fi Thursday

I, Robot is a very good movie. It's lacking in character and dialogue, but why watch Sci-Fi for character and dialogue? You should watch Sci-Fi for ideas, and this movie is full of them. Among other things, futuristic robot movies often feature overtones of humanity's history of racial discrimination.

After talking it up to some of my classes, I've started re-reading Shelley's Frankenstein, and since next week a brief respite from grading will ensue, I may actually finish it sometime soon. The frame story adds an important element to the themes of this book. Robert Walton says, "I shall satiate my ardent curiosity...and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man." He asks, "What can stop the determined heart and resolved will of man?" He admits that he would "gladly sacrifice my fortune, my existence, my every hope, to the furtherance of my enterprise. One man's life or death were but a small price to pay for the acquirement of the knowledge which I sought." And then...he's about to hear Frankenstein's story.

What a cutting literary figure Mary Shelley makes. Daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, wife of Percy Shelley, sometime companion of Lord Byron--and does she surpass them all with this book?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Politics and Art

Two links found at the excellent 3quarksdaily:

"Painting Power," by Richard Cork

"Of Gods and Monarchs," by Jonathan Jones

Both are about the painter Velazquez and the politics around and in his painting.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Comments and Links

The MLA rejects Auteur theory.
Using the Modern Language Association rules for a works cited page, citations for written material identify the author first, then the title. Citations for visual material such as film and television programs identify the title first, then people involved in the creation of the work.

Changing Scope
I’m continuing to add links to sites that are literary, academic, or philosophical in nature. I’m also adding links to some science magazines (it’s important—people devoted to ideas can’t go on ignorant of scientific discoveries and their meaning) and some liberal political sites (not because I want political discussion at this site, but because I increasingly use my blogs as a launching point to see everything I care about on the internet, and so I don’t check very much that I don’t link to).

The King’s Bed

You may know of my complete contempt for all royalty and nobility (but lest we live in a world without contradictions, The Three Musketeers is one of my favorite books).

Freedom and belief
Theo Hobson

THE NUTTY PROFESSORS: The history of academic charisma.

How Gandhi Got His Mojo Back
by Swati Gauri Sharma

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Expectation and Art

Last night, my wife and I were watching episodes of Deadwood. We were watching disc 5, and disc 6 is still in the mail. As episode 12 came to an end, we talked about how much closure there was (with necessary tension and ambiguity still present), how that would have worked as a good final episode for the season. And then we realized: that was the final episode of the season. Disc 6 would just be special features.

We would have watched the episode with completely different expectations if we had known it was the season’s last episode. But those expectations altered how we experienced the episode.

This is what we sometimes ignore: our preconceived expectations of a work of art before the experience of the work of art. If you go to The Passion of the Christ expecting to see the life of Christ, you’ll probably be disappointed; if you go expecting only to see his suffering and nothing else, you might be surprised and pleased by what else you get out of it (putting aside religious affiliations, or at least attempting to, I would defend this film as a work of art any day). We all have the experience of hearing about a particular writer or book, and having ideas about that writer or book, and having those ideas change drastically when we experience the writer or book. Almost everything we experience we first get previewed: we see the commercials for the movies, see the commercials for the TV shows, read the backs of the books.

We’re fools if we think that we can objectively experience any work of art without preconceived perceptions affecting our experience. Even if you know who the writer of a book is, or who the director of a film is, you will go in with certain expectations. You might be willing to make apologies for a writer or director you respect, whereas experiencing the work without knowledge of the writer or director might lead you to disparage the work. You can’t escape it, and that’s why the New Critics are wrong. All works of art exist in a context, if only the context in which you experience it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Some midweek links

I post links for two reasons. One, I find things I think that the few readers who check this blog out will find interesting or may wish to discuss. However, since this is mostly a failure, i mainly post so that I can go back to read these articles. When I get to the computer each day, there's a slew of things I want to look at, and I go through fairly quickly. I link to these articles when I know the subject but haven't read them yet; linking to them means I will go back to read them.

Some brief comments on things I've been reading and watching of late:

--More and more my interests are leaning toward science, particularly cosmology and evolution. So what I'm reading and watching has been reflecting this interest. I'm going back through old issues of "Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine," and last night I caught part of a PBS show about the history of the earth and all that. I learned the most accepted theory on the origin of the moon. Good stuff.

--I watched Manhattan this week. It wasn't bad, but it was enough for me to realize I really don't need to see any more Woody Allen movies.

--Watching more and more Deadwood, it's now pretty obvious that Seth Bullock and Al Swearengen are co-protagonists, but in the sort of non-traditional way HBO shows are capable of treating protagonists.

--I re-read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." Forgetting the politics for a second, his comments on usage of English should be required reading for all college students. Oh wait--I'm a college English professor. I have some control over this, so I suppose I'll assign this to my students. But his comments on the English language sort of bolstered me up a bit. I read some blogs in which the language and vocabulary seems to be quite above the language and vocabulary used here. However, the point is the idea, and the idea expressed as clearly and concisely as possible. I realize these other blogs that momentarily intimidated me are using a lot of the linguistic techniques Orwell despises.

Anyway, here are some links.

Was Thomas Paine too much of a freethinker for the country he helped free?


Sound Science or Sound Bite?
By Michael Bugeja

The Royal United States of America
Posted by Adam Roberts

Monday, October 09, 2006

Literary and Ethical Thoughts from a Weekend of Solitude

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
This film (and the stage show) is a great work of art. It is about the celebration of the abandonment of social sexual boundaries, and it treats this theme in the only way it can be authentically handled: with camp. It’s for fun, for laughs, for outrageousness.

While reading some poems by Ted Hughes and Robert Frost, I’m struck by the difficulty of really “thinking” about some poetry. Some of the English language’s best poetry defies the very concept of interpretation. Many of Hughes’ and Frost’s best poems are to be experience, to be felt, not to be analyzed.

I no longer feel comfortable eating mammals, and I don’t eat fish because of the mercury. I still eat lots and lots of chickens. However, in our society, for some reason it is acceptable for one to call oneself a vegetarian even while eating fish. It would seem completely inauthentic, however, for me to call myself a vegetarian while still eating chicken. Why is that? While I’m an existentialist who believes individuals may define themselves, if all people define the terms of ethics however they choose, we make a mockery of the very idea of ethical terminology. The current president may as well call himself a pacifist. This doesn’t mean that individuals must be limited by their ethical definitions, of course; a lot of Europe’s intellectual pacifists came to support WWII. But something still seems amiss in this terminology.

Looking at Flipper, Seeing Ourselves


Ravished by Shakespeare

Why should Booker winners stay in print?
By John Crace

Anglicans, reform yourselves
By Theo Hobson

Not So Godless After All
Scott Jaschik

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What is a "writer"?

Or rather, what separates a writer from a non-writer?

Is it a matter of "being," some difference in essence? If so, publishing isn't a factor. If there is an essential, inherent difference that makes one a writer, then publishing is superfluous.

Is it a matter of "doing," a matter of practice and work? Again, if so, publishing is superfluous. A grad student does a lot of writing, with a lot of pressure (and for me, it was with the obsessive revising and attention to detail that I would expect from a published writer).

What separates a writer from a non-writer?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Defending Ideas

There are many reasons one might read, and many benefits one might receive from reading. I don't begrudge or besmirch another his or her reasons for reading. I can say quite clearly, though, that my reason for reading remains ideas. When I think of the prose that has stayed with me in life, it is that which has given me ideas about things. Reading and thinking about Fowles' The Magus altered my worldview, helped me to understand the nature of Hazard as a primary factor in human existence (incidentally, in Moby-Dick my most enduring memory, besides the homosexual potential, is of the weave created by necessity, will, and chance). What sticks with me in Dostoevsky are the ideas of the characters (and what makes Dostoevsky masterful, to bastardize Bakhtin a bit, is that the ideas are infused with the characters and we see the impact of ideas on the characters). More than anything else, the philosophical ideas of what I read have the power not only to linger, not only to alter, but to radically shift my general attitude toward life (I don't think it an exaggeration to say that Fowles' ideas on Hazard have changed the way I look at life, day to day and big picture). If this makes me more a critic than an artist, more a philosopher than a romantic, so be it. It doesn't make me a philistine, however.

But this is exactly why I started this blog and invited somebody who clearly has different ideas about literature than me to write for it. I want to discuss (and argue) ideas. The open discussion of ideas is the best way to get at good ideas. The very reason I love to read, listen, watch, and talk is a devotion to ideas and the belief that a life lived for ideas is a life worth living. And so literature with a philosophical usefulness trumps all other reasons for literature (for me).

Link for Today
"On Poetry: School of Verse," by David Orr

Last Comment on the Pope (?)
We make a mistake if we think the Pope speaks for “The West,” for reason, for Christianity as a whole. We make a mistake if we think the Pope’s goals are about democracy and freedom. He doesn’t, and they are not. He speaks for Catholicism, and his goals are for Catholicism.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Reading With Ignorance

This post was written by one-time contributor RK

As a reader of literature increases their sophistication they risk ruining certain enjoyments and Steinbeck is one of those writers easily exposed by the attentive reader. To the ideally naive eye a story like Of Mice and Men is a heartbreaking story of two men and their tragic friendship, the camraderie of working men, and the seductive charms of a particular woman-- rich dialogue and some humor. Adapted for the screen, it is the richness of the story and the warmth of the friendship that is emphasized. What is left off or forgotten is what the sophisticated reader immediately recognizes in Steinbeck's texts-- flat allegorical characters, heavy handed metaphors, socialist propoganda. Even the more intricate metaphors are handled so obviously (the old dog put down and all the dialogue about that is later reflected in Lenny's death) that they fairly jump off the page, the writer's puppet strings clearly visible. This would be fine were this post-modernism where observing the writer's strings are point of the enjoyment. But it isn't post-modernism. It isn't even Joyce where the ideas in the text are part of the hunt. This isn't literature written to provoke social change. It is propoganda.
In Saul Bellow, the author's guiding intelligence and essay-like search for truth of existence is essential to the experience. The difference between Bellow's essay-novels and Steinbeck's propoganda-novels is that Bellow's novels are controlled by the guiding intelligence, but the characters and events remain alive and real and uncorrupted (perhaps Bellow achieved this by basing his characters heavily on real persons) by the ideas being worked out around them while in Steinbeck the characters are the embodiment of certain ideas and types. Once these ideas and types are recognized Steinbeck's stories are no longer an engrossing and emotional read of two men and their struggle for a place in a cold world, but become two WORKING MEN beat down by the elite. They become part of a cast of society's outcast-- the old worker, the Negro, the Female. The story becomes a lecture. A needed lecture, perhaps, but still a lecture on social equality. Bellow lectures, too, but through a superior organization and analysis of real characters and real events. The same as Tolstoy and Flaubert and other immortals.
The only way to read Steinbeck for emotional impact is with ignorance. This is not my prescription for just Steinbeck and it is not my disgust simply with propoganda-literature, but with all literature where characters are the embodiments of ideas-- political or social or philosophical.