Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Seeing the Whole: The Wire, season one

In college, I notoriously watched The Matrix in parts; instead of watching it all at once, I kept stopping for breaks and watched it over days. At one point I went up to my friend Jon and said "So Neo's not the One, huh?" He just looked at me and ordered me to go finish the movie.

After finishing season one of The Wire, I feel like I did when I watched The Matrix in parts. Though the show is in episodes, it is not episodic: the season as a whole only makes sense as a whole. As I've watched episodes of season one, I've deeply enjoyed watching the episodes, but the episodes didn't linger with me while I wasn't watching (as shows like Big Love, or The Sopranos, did). I liked it but I didn't look forward to seeing new episodes. But I shouldn't have even tried to say whether I liked the show or not until I finished the season.

But now that I've seen season one as a whole, I feel I've seen the whole movie. The narrative and thematic arch of the show doesn't allow for single episodes to stand out: instead, you must watch the whole. Though finishing one episode of the show never made me look forward to watching the next one, finishing season one is making me clamor for another.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Pleasure and Purpose: reading the Holocaust

Reading is indeed a pleasure, though a difficult one. And yet the word "pleasure" is completely inadequate to describe the experience of reading literature of the Holocaust. It strikes me as an awkward word to describe an encounter with literature about pogroms, ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps (it would also strike me as bizarre to suggest to writers and readers of Holocaust literature that the content of this literature doesn't matter).

Why, then, would we read Holocaust literature? Perhaps for the same reason many survivors write about the Holocaust: to witness. In the Holocaust literature I've encountered, survivors and others make little attempt to find meaning in the Holocaust. Often the works rather document, witness, pass on. A book like Charlotte Delbo's Auschwitz and After and the books of Primo Levi can provide the inner experience of a Holocaust victim and survivor. As a reader, I cannot encounter these works for pleasure and it would be blind to encounter them for no reason but to examine their artistry. But in reading them, perhaps I am participating in the effort to bear witness, to remember.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Why I read: "for here there is no place that does not see you"
On Friday, I wrote about the very real impact literature has had on my life. And perhaps I should also recall my reading of Rilke's "The Archaic Torso of Apollo." I have rarely been able to separate my reading from a religious quest. I believe reading can be a deep, spiritual experience, a journey into the soul. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to speak of reading this way, but I am not. I read to know myself, to push myself into a deep and sometimes difficult journey into humanity.

Treat for class

In the past when teaching Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter," I've been tempted to bring in some contemporary comic versions of Absurdism to show the class. I think I may finally do it: it's a good lit class, engaging and thoughtful. They deserve some laughs. I'll show at least one sketch of The Kids in the Hall (there are some nice vaudeville riffs), and one sketch from Saturday Night Live (my favorite: Tim Meadows as the straight man census taker and Christopher Walken as a completely wacky fellow). I ought to borrow a DVD of Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

I sometimes feel a low-brow guilt in my teaching: I'm perhaps too willing to incorporate popular culture into class. In my lit class, I've compared works we've read to things like The Simpsons, Office Space, Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, Nip/Tuck, The Sopranos, Big Love, and a whole host of other movies and TV shows that would probably make the professors I admired throughout college throw up. In comp class, it's somewhat more justifiable to focus units on pop culture: as students work hard to improve their writing, it can be useful to allow them to write about something they are familiar with.

Summer Reading
Between here and summer are still roughly 25 moderately sized papers, 25 lengthy final exams, 75 research papers, and a few other things thrown in. That makes it seem rather far away, which makes it difficult to process the fact that indeed it will be full-throttle summer in less than three weeks.

gave myself a rather arbitrary rule for summer novel reading. As most of my novel reading in the past year had been devoted to Dostoevsky (who writes rather long books), I plan to read novels 200-350 pages in length by several different authors. That may be tough: it will mean resisting my constant temptation to give up and just re-read The Brothers Karamozov. Of course I hope to read a fair amount of poetry, drama, and non-fiction as well.

At The Philosopher's Magazine, James Garvey considers the difficulty of utilitarian arguments for vegetarianism. Worthwhile and interesting stuff, though I admit I don't think of my vegetarianism in utilitarian terms.

Martin E. Marty in "Imagine There's No Islam" (Religion Dispatches):

"Rather than seek to “'destroy' Islam and the Muslims, one infers, it might be better for all peoples of faith to look more in the mirror and less out the window, to promote peace."

Center of Gravitas on attempts to limit what professors talk about and assign for reading:

"Republicans give faculty way too much credit while giving university students none at all. If, as a professor, I had the power to 'indoctrinate' my students, do you think that Bush would still be sitting in the White House? I have no special power to brainwash my students into being radicals. Heck, I can’t even convince my students to use the spell checker on their wordprocessor before submitting a paper. Just imagine how little power I have to foment revolution."

Rohan Maitzen in The Valve:

The Practice of Reading (1998), Denis Donoghue also calls for renewed aestheticism--but in the interests of an enhanced ethical engagement: 'the purpose of reading literature is to exercise or incite one’s imagination; specifically, one’s ability to imagine being different' (56). My own impression of what the broader public is interested in--and also of where they might both need and appreciate ‘expert’ guidance--would be ethical as much as aesthetic criticism, at least of fiction. Amateur book bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Oprah’s viewers, even many newspaper book reviewers are preoccupied with plot and character, with what happens to and to whom and why, and with judging the people, their decisions, and the results."

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My last thoughts on reading

In my experience both reading and discussing literary theory ("literary theory" here simply meaning ideas about what literature is and how we approach it, as opposed to discussion of actual specific literary works), I've seen a certain form of discourse.  Typically, proponents of an idea make universal, absolute, and rigid pronouncements of what literature is and how we should approach it.  What counts as discourse is merely crashing these grand pronouncements into each other.  Meaningful discourse--which for me means some recognition of subjectivity and plurality--rarely occurs.  I've encountered this tendency toward rigidity both in critics I admire and critics I don't.

As a student of literature and theory, it can be enjoyable to encounter, and consider, these absolute pronouncements.  As a participant, it is significantly less enjoyable.   In other subjects (sports, social issues), I've generally started to avoid the sort of contentious discussions that have no hope of moving anywhere.  Perhaps I will also make that decision about literary theory. 

I assert nothing but the prerogative of the individual reader.  The purpose of literature is whatever the individual reader chooses it to be (which means if you say "there's no meaning in literature but X," of course you'll be right: you'll see nothing else).

Friday, April 25, 2008

Literature in Our Lives

I've frequently used literature to make sense of or mark significant moments during my life.

As I noted below, my wife and I included a passage of poetry from Milton on our wedding invitations:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

The hope and humanity in these lines helped make the moment more meaningful.

My son's birth was the most intense moment of my life. And when I finally held him in my hands, I quoted King Lear to him: "When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools." At this moment, this intense, dramatic, meaningful moment, I called on the Bard for deeper meaning.

During one stretch of bad luck (it seems insignificant now, but during the frugal days of grad school, it felt rather overwhelming), I was rather consumed by the idea that the universe was just a mishmash of hazard and chance, entirely indifferent to us all. I taped to my door two passages: one from the Bible, when Jesus tells his disciples not to worry so much (As an Obsessive Complusive, this is a pretty meaningful passage for me. Indeed, I again put the passage on my wall at my current house, feeling I need to be reminded that I ought not worry). But I also put a passage on the door from Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, a passage exploring the indifference of the cosmos to human problems. That I could look at these two passages every day in some way helped me.

Literature has not been an abstract, dry study in my life. These are rather concrete examples when I've used literature in my own life. In a broader sense, I've seen the world differently, I've experienced human beings differently, because I've read Dostoevsky, because I've read Fowles, because I've read Sartre. I see the world, myself, and humanity in a different way because of what I've read.

And literature offers us metaphors to make sense of our existence. Homer gave us Scylla and Charybdis to articulate the difficult, impossible choices we sometimes confront in our lives. In the shadow of Abu Ghraib, Cornwall's servant in King Lear, who disobeys his master to try stop him from blinding Gloucester, has deep resonance. Wilfred Owen gives us a poetry to discuss the horrors of war; we can share the reference of "Dulce et Decorum Est." The Lord of the Flies offers us an image: if we want to consider the dark side of humanity, we can picture a bunch of murderous boys running around an island (but then, that's not necessary: when I consider the dark side of humanity, I picture black and white images of Nazis and Death Camps, recalling the Holocaust literature I've read that made me ache for the evils of humankind).

Literature can be a deeply meaningful experience for our lives. It can help us understand ourselves and the world we face; it can help us confront the universal reality of death. Part of that is the aesthetic: when poetry renders an idea into a new, beautiful, resonant form, it has powerfully connected with us. But that aesthetic meaning can be richer when it helps us to consider the experience, the thought, the meaning within it (Lutheran theology might be used to explain the relationship between content and form. Literature is like Consubstantiation: as Lutherans understand communion to be both bread and flesh, wine and blood, so is great literature both content and form, not meaningfully separated). Ultimately, literature has little to no meaning other than that which the reader is willing to give it. But if we willingly engage in it, it can provide us with something deep and meaningful.

I don't engage literature as an academic exercise. I engage literature as a personal renewal, as a spiritual growth, as a meaningful understanding of myself in the cosmos.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Disobedience and Freedom

In "Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem," Erich Fromm writes of Adam and Eve:

"Their act of disobedience broke the primary bond with nature and made them individuals. 'Original sin,' far from corrupting man, set him free; it was the beginning of history. Man had to leave the Garden of Eden in order to learn to rely on his own powers and to become fully human."

Milton's Paradise Lost ends in an understated way; we've witnessed angels and demons and God and war and heaven and hell and all of creation, but at the end we're left just with Adam and Eve, holding hands:

The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and providence their guide.
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.

We end with Adam and Eve, alone but together (and still with "providence" as a guide), free to go out into the world. Before them is all of human history. It is not a tragic ending: it is quiet but noble, an appreciation of the goodness still in Adam and Eve and their freedom as they go out into the world to begin humanity.

My wife and I chose these four lines of poetry for our wedding invitations a few years ago. Those who recognized the lines found it rather ironic that we were marking our marriage with the final lines of a poem about losing paradise. But in these lines, I sense an understated sense of hope, a quiet recognition of humanity.

Reading and Pleasure

We read for pleasure. If we turn to books during those parts of the day that require nothing of us, it is because those books give us pleasure. We choose to read, and thus I agree with Harold Bloom when he writes that "It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. [...] why they read must be for and in their own interest." We read for ourselves, and we ought to read what we want and how we want.

I reject any theorist which requires me to read in a certain way. If a Marxist tells me I must read to examine political ideology and material conditions, I would decline, while not denying his/her right to read for those reasons. I embrace feminism and see purpose in Feminist criticism, but I would reject a Feminist critic that tells me the only reason I ought to read is to examine and reveal patriarchy.

Such approaches limit the reader's pleasure: they deny the reader the ability to read for his or her own reasons, in his or her own interests. They apply a rigid code to literature, not allowing readers to read as themselves or for their own reasons. Again, I don't reject Marxist or Feminist approaches to literature; I just deny that they are primary ways of reading that must be inflicted on everybody.

And so I come to Aestheticism.

It strikes me how moralistic Aestheticism is. Aestheticism, like other theories, seems to assert that there is a proper, correct, right reason to read and way to read, and anybody who doesn’t read the same way is wrong. This appears as a universalization of individual experience: because a particular reason for reading doesn't work for the Aestheticist, it ought not work as a reason to read for anybody. Thus Aestheticism is another approach that attempts to deny the reader his or her individual pleasure in reading; it asserts that the individual reader ought to be reading differently than he or she is. I ask if reading literature for ideas, for education, or for moral edification, gives a reader pleasure, why precisely shouldn't a reader read for these reasons?

Harold Bloom doesn't read as a moralist, but he does recognize the individual's pleasure--and purpose--in reading:

"Ultimately we read — as Bacon, Johnson, and Emerson agree — in order to strengthen the self, and to learn its authentic interests. We experience such augmentations as pleasure, which may be why aesthetic values have always been deprecated by social moralists, from Plato through our current campus Puritans."

And oddly, in my assertion that one can read for education or edification, I agree with Bloom when he says "Self-improvement is a large enough project for your mind and spirit: there are no ethics of reading." Aestheticism, in a sense, applies an "ethics of reading": it asserts a there is a proper way we ought to read, rejecting other purposes (actually in other places Bloom pretty much does the same thing).

I read as myself, and for my own reasons. Reading offers me the most pleasure when I am able to read for myself and for my own reasons. I can only suggest the same to others.

(This post is something like a response to Daniel Green's response to an earlier post of my own, but it seems better as a stand alone post than as a comment there).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Politics and Literature
Jacob Russell writes: "Not that I believe for a second that literature and the arts are not in themselves, consequential--even primary to politics. But they cannot be so as Mandarin pursuits apart from the messy realities of power and its relations to everyday life."

This reminds me of something that I've tried to argue in the past: it's not that literature becomes politicized, but that politics underlies so much of how we approach literature.

In grad school, I took a course on Asian-American literature, and we very much took for granted that literature is political. During this time, I was reading William Wordsworth's "Nutting," describing an excursion tramping through the woods looking for nuts. How on earth is this a political poem?, I thought. Then I considered some questions one could ask about this poem. What political realities granted the poet access to the woods, and the leisure time to walk about in the woods? More pressing: what political realities lead professors to determine this poem belongs in any canon (in other words, that students should read it)? Why this poem instead of another? Suddenly there are political ramifications underlying my approach to Wordsworth's poem: politics in why I was reading it in the first place.

I don't suggest that one must ask these questions to read that or any other poem (though Wordsworth did occasionally touch on politics in his poetry--"The Prelude" includes his musings on the French Revolution and its aftermath). In fact, I think one would have a more authentic, meaningful experience reading the poem without those political questions. But it is good if somebody asks these questions. Whether you would like to ask these questions or not is up to you as a reader. But politics underlies the canon, and it is a good thing that people are asking the serious political questions about what the canon includes and excludes, and why.

Grammar, Clarity, and They/Their
English teachers should not teach and enforce grammar rules to be conservative sticklers of traditional usage; rather, English teachers should teach and enforce grammar rules to facilitate clarity.

The top priority of most writing (and all academic writing) should be clarity: one wishes to convey one's meaning as clearly as possible. Grammar is a (very small) part of clear writing: poor grammar can distort or confuse one's meaning.

I'm ready to accept the use of "they" or "their as a singular genderless pronoun on philosophical grounds. I don't like it, and I won't use it myself, but I'll tolerate it. Language evolves, and it's silly to resist change on one little grammar rule. However, in some contexts, the use of they/their as a singular pronoun can confuse the point. If a sentence has two separate nouns, and then later in the sentence they/their is used as a pronoun, it can be unclear whether the pronoun refers to both nouns or to only one (or which one).

On the grounds of clarity, I think I ought to encourage my students to maintain subject-pronoun agreement. It is not about nit-picking a clearly evolving grammar usage; it is about encouraging students to be as clear in their meaning as they can be.

Mostly Vegan
I'm in the early stages of working out precisely how I'm living for the next year (or more). While most days I am a fairly strict vegan, I am now also a "special occasions cheese eater." Those special occasions are rare: I ate pizza for my birthday, and in the summer, I foresee three special occasions: an important wedding, a trip to Boston (first real vacation in three years--I want to eat some cheese), and the Hazelweird Fantasy Football Draft.

Links (a few which will show how unabashedly low-brow I can be)
I thought Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was an outstanding movie in its way; it was a silly comedy, but it was actually exploring something meaningful, too. I hope the next one is just as good: in The New York Times, Dennis Lim calls it a "stoner protest film."

Ona Bonfiglio in Common Dreams: "Peace activists are often accused of being naïve dreamers when it comes to dealing with conflict or dangerous enemies. So what is the alternative? Usually it’s to fight fire with fire (i.e., revenge and retaliation)."

An article in The Onion for fans of Back to the Future.

At New Scientist, read "24 myths and misconceptions" about Evolution.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Stupid Summer Project: The Betrayal

Jerry: Oh my God, this drawer is filled with Fruit Loops!
Elaine: So what?
Jerry: And milk.

Jerry: Well, everybody is a little cranky on their birthday.
George: Oh, it's a bad day. You got everybody over at your house, you're thinking, "These are my friends?"
Jerry: Every day is my birthday.

Comment: The backward episode works. Perhaps this was the furthest stretch of Seinfeld's post-modernism: the episode really only works if you're already aware of all the conventions of the sitcom in general and Seinfeld in particular. It's generally pretty funny, and they do a lot of things to take advantage of the gimmicky format. I like that they go back two years (Nina is explaining the internet, Susan is still alive) and 11 years (Jerry meets Kramer and says since they're neighbors they can share everything).

Friday, April 18, 2008

Literature as a game we choose to play

John Fowles sometimes talked about literature as a game. As an author, he would pretend his characters have freedom, but he knew it was a game, and that he was playing God, in control of everything that happens. I find Fowles an admirable writer in part because he invites readers in on the game. In The French Lieutenant's Woman, he injects himself in to talk about the writing and reading process, he becomes a physical character in the novel, and he manipulates the "ending" while talking explicitly about it. But Fowles is not pulling one over on the reader--rather, he's inviting the reader to recognize fiction as fiction. In The Aristos Fowles writes about different types of games: games in which the play itself is what matters, and games in which there is a goal (to win). If fiction is a game for Fowles, it's a game that exists for its own sake, and a game in which the writer pulls the reader over to his side.

I sometimes think of Fowles as a Reader-response writer: he requires his readers to think about how they read. And perhaps this game metaphor is useful in thinking about how we read. For example, when I read, I know the characters are not real. They don't exist: the author made them up. Yet I'm willing to play the game: while reading, I will happily pretend that the characters are real. I'm willing to assess their actions and consider their desires and motivations. I'm willing to get to know them, try to understand them. I might like them or dislike them. I know the characters don't exist, but I'm willing to play the fiction writer's game. Fiction is pretend. But as children we find it's fun to pretend: we play pretend all the time. As we grow, we can still be willing to play pretend. I'm not giving up my reason or my critical faculties when I pretend that the series of letters I see on the page identify real characters or events: I'm agreeing to play the game. It's a game with conventions, and there is generally a set of rules that both author and reader have agreed to. You can experience literature without agreeing to the rules of the game or even treating it like it's a game. But fiction is, indeed, a game of pretend.

Useful Comparisons

In teaching literature, I sometimes find it interesting to let different texts illuminate each other. I teach Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" and Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" on the same day. They are each initiation stories, showing a young, naive, inexperienced indivdual entering the world and being confronted with the bad stuff (danger, evil, the dark side, all that). Instead of looking at each short story individually, we look at them together. If there are significant similarities (Connie and Robin are rural, isolated individuals that encounter society--with all its dark parts--in town) and significant differences (Robin may grow from his recognition and be better off--Connie has no such luck), perhaps we can learn something about each text in particular.

In a wider sense, perhaps we can learn something about the subject at hand (here, initiation). I don't want my students to encounter these texts as artifacts that mean nothing to their lives. I want us to talk about initiation, how it is often good but sometimes bad, and how initiations can be either traumatic or positively transformative. Encountering literature can be itself a tranformative experience, forcing us to confront ourselves.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Sometimes we need to think about the things we take for granted to recognize the absurdity.

Like justices of the highest court in the land discussing the probability for pain and the degree of suffering necessary to make the institutional killing of a human being illegal.

See NPR here and here.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Downpour: mostly links and excerpts

Teaching the text
In my general education literature class, I tell students virtually nothing about the author, and virtually nothing about the time and culture the book was written in. There are some very reasonable exceptions, of course. For the most part, though, I figure we've got enough to deal with in the text itself, and for the objectives of the course, I really think the text is sufficient.

Mostly vegan: private vegan, social vegetarian
When I'm eating alone and planning my meals alone, I'm a fairly strict vegan (though sometimes honey is an ingredient in what I eat). When I'm with people, socializing and going to a restaurant, I don't really want to bother checking whether the veggie burger on a bun that I order contains animal products.

Recently a woman asked and I described myself as "mostly vegan." That clearly implies total vegetarianism, doesn't it? She said she was "basically vegan," and I of course understood that to mean a person that never eats meat. That's reasonable, right?

Is blogging in your office "unethical"?
Apparently it is "improper" to use university resources, including "work-place internet access," for "outside activities."

So is blogging in one's office, but on one's own time, unethical?

It's silly how superior NPR is to everything else on the radio

"Rising Demand for Meat Takes Toll on Environment"

I almost thought Renee Montagne was getting a little defensive: she seemed to be trying to get Naylor to say meat production wasn't that much worse for the environment than other types of mass food production.

"Justices Weigh Death Penalty for Child Rape"

Nina Totenberg:

"'This case is a throwback,' says Washington and Lee University professor David Bruck. 'The death penalty for rape was one of the most disturbing and troubling aspects of this nation's entire experience until the Supreme Court called a halt, we thought, in 1977.'

"Disturbing and troubling, he says, because it was almost exclusively imposed on African Americans.

"Indeed, from 1930 to 1972, basically the last years when the death penalty was imposed for rape, nine out of 10 men executed for rape were black. Moreover, it appears that no white man has ever been executed in the U.S. for the non-homicide rape of a black woman or child."

Reading as Individuals
Harold Bloom in "Why Read?":

"It matters, if individuals are to retain any capacity to form their own judgments and opinions, that they continue to read for themselves. How they read, well or badly, and what they read, cannot depend wholly upon themselves, but why they read must be for and in their own interest. You can read merely to pass the time, or you can read with an overt urgency, but eventually you will read against the clock. Bible readers, those who search the Bible for themselves, perhaps exemplify the urgency more plainly than readers of Shakespeare, yet the quest is the same. One of the uses of reading is to prepare ourselves for change, and the final change alas is universal."

The Pope
Mary E. Hunt in "In the Papal Pocket: Benedict XVI and the Press":

"Press coverage of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States—his first as Pope—acts like a mirror reflecting the media’s complicated role in reporting religious news as a whole. [...] If the kind of coverage in 2005 that accompanied the death of Pope John Paul II, and the election of his successor, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) is any indication, we can expect a great deal of air time and print space, very little if any critical analysis, and a lot of free press for the Roman Catholic Church."

See also
In The Guardian, Fred d'Agular writes about poetry and the Virginia Tech murders of a year ago: "the elegiac art of poetry, when faced with grief, makes marvellous things happen."

In Times Online, Margaret Reynolds discusses editions of classics.

Peter Singer on human rights, words, and moral progress (Common Dreams).

Monday, April 14, 2008

Arrested Development: my favorite sitcom ever

Yes, I believe Arrested Development tops Seinfeld as my favorite sitcom ever. I'm re-watching season two and laughing out loud regularly.

What's so great? The eccentric characters (G.O.B. Bluth and Tobias Fumke are the best), the running gags ("Her?"), Michael Bluth's facial expressions (Jason Batemen has several great shocked and appalled looks), the continuous incest jokes, the tone and pacing (the death of the sitcom laugh track was long overdue), and a whole lot more.

Ah, but it's all really about tastes. We all respond to different comedic styles differently: I can only call Arrested Development my favorite, not the greatest, sitcom. What makes one laugh cannot always be so easily quantified, and thus shouldn't really be ranked in any way but by individual tastes.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Living and Ideas

Elizabeth Day reviewing Carole Seymour-Jones's A Dangerous Liason (a biography of Sartre and de Beauvoir) in The Guardian:

"As a dual biography of two of the 20th century's most towering philosophical minds, it elucidates the interplay between their intellectual thought and their personal interactions. Much of Seymour-Jones's work centres on the poisonous frictions between the two."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Watching, Reading, and the Aesthetic

I like plot. When I watch a TV show or a movie, I want something to be happening. There are two genres from which I don't demand plot; because horror and comedy attempt to elicit a specific audience reaction (fear or laughter), whether these genres use plot or not to elicit this reaction doesn't matter to me as much as whether or not they do in fact elicit the intended reaction. But generally, if I'm spending time watching something, I would like some sort of story.

But this post isn't about plot; when I'm watching, I don't just want plot. I have a very keen appreciation for the beautiful image. In visual art and entertainment, the aesthetic means a great deal to me. In film and television, what sticks in my memory are not necessarily the ideas, but the aesthetic of the work. I remember the sounds--the music and the way actors speak. I remember the way characters move or hold themselves (when I think of The Sopranos, I see Tony brooding about. I often associate other characters with their visual representations: Janice's distinct plodding walk, or the way Johnny Sac holds and smokes a cigarette, or Silvio's hunched shoulders. Ah, and the sounds! In The Sopranos all of the characters have such unique, distinct voices and speech patterns: when I think of Christopher, of Paulie, of Silvio, of Dr. Melfi, of Uncle Junior, what will stick out to me is the way they talk). In all I watch, I remember the movements of the camera, the way the frame captures the action, the color and movement and tone. Catching parts of Peter Jackson's King Kong on TNT this weekend, I'm struck not just by how much that movie captures beautiful images, but how much that movie is about capturing beautiful images.

Do I read differently than I watch? Perhaps, since I've said for a long time I read for ideas. One of my favorite films is Moulin Rouge, not for any great ideas, but precisely because of the brilliant aesthetic: the music, the movement, the colors, the constantly shifting camera, the distinct speech patterns, the dancing, the gorgeous sets, the costumes, the actors, the beauty of it all. It is the aesthetic of the Red Curtain Trilogy that has enthralled me, not any ideas.

But perhaps it is worth pointing out that while I read for ideas, I am most certainly also reading for aesthetic. When I reject Aestheticism for myself, it is a rejection of "art for art's sake" and a primary or total focus on the aesthetic at the expense of the content. But I most certainly appreciate and recognize the aesthetic originality and power in literature.

Now here's an odd shift: I'm not sure how I read different types of writing differently. I'm not sure my mind is operating differently whether I'm reading literature (poetry, drama, or fiction), history, theology, philosophy, criticism, essays, any remotely serious writing: I'm not entirely sure there's a difference in the way I read.

Ah, but indeed there seem to be different ways my mind is working that I'm not even consciously registering. Actually, I feel rather different when I'm reading a play: it is somehow seems distinct from any other type of writing, and I think I am examining it in a different way (for one thing, my mind is picturing it both on a stage and in a "real" setting that I might picture from reading a novel). I think too I read a poem differently than a novel; in fact, I'm sure I do. And so too must there be a difference in the way I read anything else. But what I'm saying is that I'm not sure what that difference is, and that the similarities in the way I approach any form of serious writing may be greater than the differences. Maybe.

And again I come to Reader-response. I recognize what I respond to in film/television (plot and the aesthetic of sight and sound). Perhaps I ought to become more conscious of precisely how I am reading what I read. I say I read for ideas, but I certainly consider the aesthetic: I don't ignore one for the other. But is the relationship between ideas and the aesthetic in my reading completely understood to me? Just what is it I love about Ted Hughes' Crow so much? If I really had to define it, I'd probably say it is some of my favorite poetry because of the aesthetic, not for any ideas that may be pulled out of these myth-like poems (or is it neither, but rather entertainment? The poems are quite amusing). I respond to Ted Hughes in a way that transcends content and probably resides somewhere in the aesthetic. And even when it is the content I respond to, how would I divorce it from the work's aesthetic? I adore Paradise Lost. I love the content and I love the ideas. But I also love the imagery Milton conjures. I love his poetry. I could spend a long time analyzing and discussing his art in the epic poem. It's a poem beautifully structured and containing many beautiful lines of poetry. It's a poem so rich in both art and content that I rather think it transcends any meaningful separation between the art and the ideas.

So I do in fact read different things differently. My brain pictures different things while I read drama. I respond to poetry in ways that I might not respond to other types of writing. Perhaps what I should say is that when I read history or philosophy or theology, I'm not reading those things that differently from the way I read literature. I've a rather big interest in both history and theology, yet I was an English major and now I'm an English teacher: I started with literature, and I've taken my modes of reading for literature to other types of writing, not vice versa. I might also recognize that in all of my reading, I'm reading for my personal education. At some level, I am reading to learn and to grow, no matter what I'm reading. Perhaps this is another reason that while I do appreciate the aesthetic of literature, I don't accept Aestheticism: I do approach literature for such things as education and edification, concepts that, if I understand it correctly, Aestheticism would reject as morality that doesn't belong in art.

This exploration (navel gazing, certainly, but I hope to a larger purpose) is an attempt to understand the manner in which I watch and read. Harold Bloom wrote a book called How to Read and Why; as a blogger about literature, perhaps my subtitle should be "How I read and why." But blogging about literature probably always contains that as a subtext: it's a rather personal, intimate medium in which to discuss experience with literature.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Little Downpour

On Reader-Response
Let me pull out my thesis from the post (and enjoyable discussion) below. My assertion is that as reading is such a distinctly individual activity, we should accept differing, subjective modes of reading. We do not all read for the same reasons or in the same way, and that's a good thing. Our reading experience should be for ourselves, so each person should read in the way that is most authentic to him/her. Furthermore, multiplicity of reading perspectives brings greater understanding of a given work: coming at a work from several different approaches, and then sharing what we've found, makes literary discussion more enriching than if we all used the same approach.

I read for ideas: I assert that not to claim that's the way people ought to read, but to recognize my own mode of reading. I do not assert that there is a "proper" or "true" way for every single person to read. When we read, we need not be limited by any approach; we can choose how to approach the work in an authentic way.

I don't deal with cheating terribly often; I think I make my paper assignments distinct and specific enough that it's difficult for students to try find a paper that suits the assignment. The much more prevalent problem I face is unintentional plagiarism: students that don't intentionally pass of another's work as their own, but do a shoddy, inadequate, incomplete job of citing their sources.

What's frustrating about catching intentional plagiarism is the work it adds as a professor. In order to fully follow the university's policy on plagiarism, there is all sorts of extra work I need to do. The student tries to avoid doing the work of writing a paper, and for that I get to do extra work. It's like Dr. Farthing says: "What I don't understand is... when you owe a bookie a lot of money, and he, say, blows off one of your toes, you still owe him the money. Doesn't seem fair to me." Wait--it's not really like that. Except the last part. Actually, here's a better metaphor. Last night my son woke up and wouldn't sleep: I was awake with him for an hour and a half. Now, today, if he wants he can nap as long as he's able. But I still have to go to work and can't get back that hour and a half of lost sleep. Of course he's also not getting a zero on the assignment and a note in his permanent record.

The Wire
I'm five episodes into season one of The Wire, and while I recognize it as a good show, I'm a long way off from understanding why a fairly large number of people call it the greatest show (or one of the greatest shows) ever.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Reader-Response and Moral Reading

Reader-response Theory discusses reading in terms of "experience," "transaction," or "relationship." It also recognizes the role the reader brings to the text: as a work of literature barely exists outside the mind of the reader, it is worthwhile to examine the reader's participation. It is perhaps the most honest way to read: it doesn't pretend at the objective analysis that other critical approaches may. It requires me to understand that the way I read is but one mode of reading.

Reader-response Theory also recognizes the impact of reading. While it may focus on what the reader brings to the text, it also does not treat the text as an artifact, sealed in a vacuum. Reader-response Theory fully embraces the reality that the text brings something to the reader. We can be deeply, fundamentally changed by what we read.

We might also recognize the morality a reader brings to the reading experience. I am not an Aestheticist: my interest in literature is not to treat the work of literature as an aesthetic creation devoid of moral meaning. I read as a moral being, and I explore art for its moral meaning. That does not mean attaching the author's morality to the text, as Daniel Green recognizes one shouldn't, but exploring moral meaning in the text. Whatever personal failings a writer has does not detract from my reading of that writer's work (though as I'm writing here of the legitimacy of subjective modes of reading, who am I to say another reader must ignore the author's life?).

My most prominent ethical realities are in my embrace of pacifism and my advocacy for animal rights (I was initially going to call them ethical "stances," but they are not mere poses; they are very deep ways of living and thinking that infuse my everyday life). As a reader, I cannot put those ethics aside (that doesn't mean I can't develop an interpretation separate from those ethics--my point here is the reading experience). As I read Golding's Lord of the Flies, a story which explores human nature and violence, I certainly read it as a pacifist. It would be stupid to think I could set aside my opposition to violence while reading the story.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

When we think about the things we say about War

There is one common argument used to continue the war in Iraq that, when we consider it, it is both obvious and absurd.

The argument goes that we must keep fighting in Iraq because military generals, soldiers, and veterans believe we should continue to fight in Iraq.

But think about it carefully. This argument suggests we should continue the war because:

People who have embraced military values wish to continue the war.

People who are trained to wage war wish to continue the war.

People who have put their belief in violent solutions into practice wish to continue the war.

People who wage war for a career wish to continue to the war.

When you think about it, isn't that a bit obvious? This argument is always self-justifying: it suggests a behavior should be continued because those who believe in and devote their lives to that behavior wish it to continue.

Should we continue a war because people who choose to serve in the military wish to continue a war?

Should we continue a war because those who accept violence as a means wish to continue a war?

If your best argument for waging war is that those who wage war for a living say we should, you may want to reconsider your logic.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Sucks to your "Brand"

Gyles Brandreth has an interesting enough article at Times Online about how Oscar Wilde fits in our time. But does absolutely everything need to be discussed in terms of capitalism, commercialism, and the marketplace? We're in an age when anything remotely related to identity (or the spirit) is discussed as "branding."

Existentialist? Existence precedes essence? There is no essence? The outward forms create the inner meaning; identity is self-created (thus "branded")?

Postmodernist? The outward forms signal that the center is empty, and so we focus on the image (and identify it as a "brand," full of shifting meaning and transient image)?

Or simply dehumanizing?

(via ALD)

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Torrential Downpour

Writing as Reaction
When I'm discussing an essay with students, I will often ask a question to get at the writer's focus and tone: What is this writer responding to? Often we can understand a writer's points of emphasis and intensity of rhetoric by working backward to what this writer is reacting against. For example, we read Theodore Dalrymple's essay "Just Do What the Pilot Tells You," which emphasizes the value of obedience. We can understand Dalrymple's emphasis on the good of obedience by examining what he is responding to: Milgram's obedience experiment and the reaction to it, which focused on the dangers of obedience. Another example: some of my students react negatively to essays we read that are harshly critical of malls. I ask students to consider what the writers are reacting against: the writers likely see themselves writing in an environment of unbridled and unreflecting consumerism.

I'm often turned of when a writer uses harsh insults or mocking name-calling. For several reasons I don't like when discourse on ideas devolves into demeaning insults. But I ask myself that question: What is this writer responding to?, or perhaps more strongly, What is this writer reacting against? Sometimes this allows me to see past inflammatory rhetoric to the point a writer wishes to make.

Valjean and Javert
Les Miserables is my favorite musical: it is absolutely stunning. And I see continuing significance in the contrast of Javert and Valjean. Javert lives by the belief that there are good people and there are bad people, and that bad people cannot change; "redemption" is not even a concept for Javert. But Valjean's life teaches us that the lines of good and evil do not run between people, but run within people; Valjean provides us a story of forgiveness and redemption.

I'm rather struck by how much it is literature that inform my religious beliefs and give them meaning.

At We Have Mixed Feelings About Sven Sundgaard
On matters of peace and violence, Katherine Kersten claims that "pretty thoughts" don't work, but on matters of teens and sex, Kersten has some "pretty thoughts" that don't seem grounded in reality. I write about it at WHMFASS instead of here because that's where I write about Minnesota media.

Currently Reading: William Golding's The Lord of the Flies
An academic career in literature is sort of odd. An advanced degree in English and a job teaching English at college certainly suggests you've read a great deal. But of course there are so many great books out there, and with limited time (and specific academic focus), there are all sorts of major books you haven't read (and that you suspect most people in your position have read). Sure, you recognize that all English teachers don't share a common life reading list. You can also tell yourself that in your studies you've read several books that are rarely read, even among academics. Still, you can feel sheepish about having failed to read certain books. You reach a point in life where you really think you rather should.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Moral leadership

At Religion Dispatches, Jonathan Walton reflects on Martin Luther King Jr. and suggests that a true moral leader is rarely popular or effective:

"He chose what he regarded as Christian discipleship over racial diplomacy and moral truth over political tact. King essentially decided to no longer be a political bonsai tree pruned in the direction that the white and even black establishments would have him grow. His shift from the language of reform to that of revolution (an American “revolution of values” to be exact), and from civil rights for Southern Negroes to human rights for the oppressed throughout the globe, effectively sabotaged his career as a “Negro leader.” This is what King seemingly desired. Not that he found masochistic pleasure in vexing his civil rights cohorts, aggravating white liberal allies, and seemingly justifying the concocted claims of longtime opponents. But King did realize that a man of moral conscience could not be a consensus leader. Prophets are neither hand-picked by the powerful nor necessarily popular. Like his ancient Hebrew spiritual interlocutors that served as his moral inspiration, King was prepared to lament from outside the city gates of cultural acceptance."

At Common Dreams, Jeff Cohen talks about media portrayal (then and now) of King's last years, "as he campaigned militantly against U.S. foreign and economic policy:"

"While noting in passing that King spoke out against the Vietnam War, mainstream reports today rarely acknowledge that he went way beyond Vietnam to decry U.S. militarism in general: 'I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos,' said King in 1967 speeches on foreign policy, 'without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.'"

The Root also has a lot of good features on this anniversary of King's death.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Edmund and Lear

Somehow, while grading exams on King Lear, it suddenly struck me how the following soliloquy from Edmund could provide context for how we discuss the entire play:

"This is the excellent foppery of
the world, that when we are sick in fortune,
often the surfeits of our own behavior, we
make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon,
and stars; as if we were villains on necessity;
fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves,
and treachers by spherical predominance;
drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced
obedience of planetary influences; and all that
we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An
admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay
his goatish disposition on the charge of a star."

The play as a whole emphasizes the possibility that nature or the gods are malevolent or indifferent. Perhaps, indeed, the cosmos or God is indifferent to human suffering and human behavior. But...doesn't Lear bring his tragedy on himself? He disowns Cordelia and banishes Kent. He turns the kingdom over to his greedy daughters Regan and Goneril. He makes mistakes; his own character and his own actions bring on suffering for himself, his kingdom, and Cordelia. It isn't just Lear, of course; he and others are also victimized by the play's villains. But again it is not nature or the gods that make people suffer further: it is evil people that cause further suffering. The good, loyal characters suffer because of the machinations and actions of Edmund, Cornwall, Regan, and Goneril.

So perhaps Edmund is speaking to the audience directly here. He's warning us not to get distracted by all the foolish characters who continually muse on "nature" and the gods. They're distracted: it is distinctly human behavior that brings on the suffering of the play. It's silly to lash out at indifferent or malevolent gods, to complain about the emptiness of the cosmos. Human suffering is brought on by the mistakes of good people and the machinations of evil people.

In the play, Edmund and Lear speak not a single word to one another. Perhaps, in a very indirect way, Edmund in this passage speaks to Lear. But perhaps Lear doesn't even need the message. It is possible that Lear and Edmund are the only two characters that never actually lash out at "nature." After Lear is cast out into the storm, he recognizes he can't blame "nature," but must blame his daughters:

"Rumble thy bellyful. Spit, fire. Spout, rain!
Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire are my daughters.
I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness.
I never gave you kingdom, called you children,
You owe me no subscription. Then let fall
Your horrible pleasure."

Here Lear recognizes it is bad people that caused his suffering; indeed, throughout his insanity in the storm, Lear repeatedly fixates on the betrayal by his daughters. Other characters experience suffering and speculate on the gods; Lear experiences suffering and pins it on a human source. And later, Lear recognizes that it was his own mistakes, telling Cordelia

"I am a very foolish fond old man"


"You must bear with me./ Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and/ foolish."

In Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes that Shakespeare never allowed Edmund and Lear to speak to each other "because they are apocalyptic antitheses: the king is all feeling, and Edmund is bare of all affect." They had nothing to say to each other, according to Bloom, because they were opposites: Lear is all emotion, full of whatever feeling possesses him, while Edmund is "ice-cold, indifferent." Insightful, yes, but it also highlights one of my frustrations of Bloom's reading of Shakespeare in that book. He places all emphasis on characters, and explores very little of the ideas. Bloom as a reader loves unique characters (a reading mode I could appreciate if Bloom didn't so frequently lash out at anybody who reads Shakespeare differently than he does).

Let me provide another theory:

Edmund and Lear have nothing to say to each other because they already know the same thing. While many of the characters in the play spend time making grand claims about indifferent nature and the malevolent gods, Edmund and Lear each recognize that human affairs are governed by human character and human behavior. Each recognizes that it is not something outside of humanity which causes the greatest of human suffering, but the frailty and evil of humanity itself that causes the worst of human suffering. In the IDEAS of the play, Edmund and Lear have nothing to say to each other because they both embrace the same "truth."

Is King Lear a play about an indifferent universe, about a lack of divine justice? Perhaps. But perhaps Edmund warns us not to look to the stars for an answer to human suffering. Perhaps we see in the tragic hero Lear a character that never attempts to blame "nature." Perhaps King Lear reminds us not to speculate on "nature" or "the gods" when we should look to humanity for answers to human suffering.

And an extra thought
I can't help but think Moby-Dick is involved here somewhere. Doesn't Moby-Dick explore the relationship between that which humans are responsible for and that which is beyond human control? Ishmael says:

"chance, free will, and necessity--no wise incompatible--all interweavingly working together. The straight warp of necessity, not to be swerved from its ultimate course--its every alternating vibration, indeed, only tending to that; free will still free to ply her shuttle between given threads; and chance, though restrained in its play within the right lines of necessity, and sideways in its motions directed by free will, though thus prescribed to by both, chance by turns rules either, and has the last featuring blow at events."

And doesn't Moby-Dick often tempt us to consider Ahab and the sorry souls on the Pequod victims of "fate" or of "nature," when we should also look to human character and human behavior to explain events?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Utilitarian thinking in The Quiet American

DON'T READ THIS IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY READ THE QUIET AMERICAN: I hate to be responsible for giving away endings.

In The Quiet American, Pyle, like Don Quixote and Madame Bovary, has read the wrong books, and thinks reality should match what he's read in books. Fowler is like Rick in Casablanca: he believes he is neutral, but he learns that he cannot be uninvolved.

After witnessing the atrocities of war, after seeing a woman covering her dead baby and a man cut in half by a bomb Pyle is responsible for, Fowler recognizes that he must act. Because of the damage the well-intentioned Pyle has and can cause, Fowler acts to have Pyle killed.

Pyle is willing to aid atrocities for what he sees as a greater cause. Of the deaths of civilians after a bombing, he says "They were only war casualties. [...] It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause. [...] In a way you could say they died for democracy." The individuals that were killed were simply collateral damage for Pyle in the greater cause of bringing democracy to Vietnam. And for this naivety and the damage his innocence can cause, Fowler is complicit in his murder.

And yet, Fowler's action is not terribly different from Pyle's action. Pyle is willing to sacrifice lives in a utilitarian ethic--their lives will bring about a greater good. Fowler is willing to sacrifice Pyle's life in order to save other lives--to bring about a greater good. That we can look back and say that both men failed in their goals (Pyle couldn't bring democracy to Vietnam, Fowler couldn't prevent the terrible violence and suffering that came from American involvement in Vietnam) can make us question the efficacy of violence as a means to an end. But while we may sympathize with Fowler's action more than Pyle's, they both acted on the same principle: life is expendable if it is for a good reason.

Fowler recognizes his utilitarian assessment, too: "what right had I to value her less than the dead bodies in the square? [...] I had judged like a journalist in terms of quantity." And he recognizes his similarity to Pyle: "Was I so different from Pyle, I wondered? Must I too have my foot thrust in the mess of life before I saw the pain?"

It is a beautifully written and incisive book.

"Divine Meditation 14" by John Donne

Or "Holy Sonnet 14"

It is a very physical poem; I read it as about the poet's body more than about the poet's mind/heart/soul. The imagery of the poem can be fit into three distinct parts.

Lines 1-4:

"Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new."

Here is the violent imagery: the poet is asking God to forcibly enter him. It is in these four stanzas that we get so many strong action verbs: batter, knock, breathe, shine, seek, rise, stand, o'erthrow, bend, break, blow, burn, make. Direct, powerful language. Even choppy to connote the power and violence ("break, blow, burn").

Lines 5-8

"I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captivated, and proves weak or untrue,"

Here is the weakest part of the poem, right in the heart: the metaphor of the poet as a besieged city working to let God in. It fits thematically (and the image is consistent with the first part), but it is not as strong as the first and last parts of the poem.

Lines 9-14

"Yet dearly'I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy,
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

The imagery shifts to marriage and sex. The poet is married to the devil, and wishes for God to "divorce" him from the devil in order to take him for himself. We end with paradox: to be free from sin, God must forcibly enter the poet (a metaphor for grace: humans are helpless without it), and to be chaste, God must "ravish" him. Metaphysical poets seemed untroubled using sexual imagery when describing their relationship with God.

Why is "imprison" me in the love/marriage metaphor rather than the broader violence metaphor or the seige metaphor? Perhaps it simply brings unity to the sections of the poem. We might also look at Donne's "Confined Love," where the poet suggests laws of marriage were caused by patriarchy and confine true love (real love needs to spread itself around). To be married to the devil, then, is to be imprisoned; if God marries (or "imprisons") the poet, he is paradoxically made free.

Donne is a masterful poet for his ability to use physical language to describe what is a spiritual experience. It is not abstract--Donne makes this a poem about "action." The imagery isn't based on nouns, but on verbs; reading this poem, we know something is happening.