Friday, January 30, 2009

Dostoevsky and Belief

"Show an affirming flame."
     --W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"

In Dostoevsky's great novels, religious belief is elusive.  Certainly Crime and Punishment contains a story of Christian suffering and redemption, and Demons lampoons the nihilistic radicals.  But I can hardly see The Idiot as an affirmation of Christian faith--it is a book consumed with doubt (more strongly, loss or absence of faith.  I think of Rogozhin and Myshkin, in the dark, discussing belief in God, looking at Holbein's painting, facing each other as contrasting rivals, being ruined in the end).  Notes from the Underground and The Adolescent defy religious definition, and his masterpiece among masterpieces, The Brothers Karamozov, seems an affirmation of Christian faith, but contains within it such diverse and strong characters and ideas of the opposite that again, religious belief is elusive.

I might describe Dostoevsky's novels as a vacillation between belief and unbelief, but that's not quite accurate.  They seem to hold belief and unbelief at the same time, in the same moment, in the same mind.  But at any rate, the tension of belief and unbelief is the substance of Dostoevsky's novels, his characters, perhaps his own soul.

And that may be why I'm drawn to him, why I consider him my master.  I could describe myself as a believer who has always intensely doubted, or as a non-believer that has never actually given up believing.  I find that in Dostoevsky; I find it in the characters that haunt his novels.

I think perhaps the image of the seed in The Brothers Karamozov is significant.  His novels seem wracked with unbelief, but contain within them a seed of belief, a tiny affirmation.  They show an affirming flame, but a tiny one, a flame that barely keeps out the overwhelming darkness.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The benefits of discomfort while teaching

I'm teaching an ITV course this semester, meaning there are students at another location that communicate via television screens and microphones, as well as students in the classroom.  In the first two days, I've noticed this dynamic requires me to be much more on edge, much more alert.  It's not easy to get comfortable teaching in this environment.

But is this a bad thing?  Perhaps if I teach from a heightened alertness instead of a calm comfort, I'll do a better job teaching.  I'll be sharper, and the educational experience for the students will be better.

After all, lecture is much more comfortable than discussion.  When lecturing, one can get into familiar speaking patterns and cover familiar material.  In discussion, a facilitating teacher has to be more flexible, innovative, thinking quickly about student comments and trying to help a student-driven discussion move in positive directions.  Because one can't plan out all features of a discussion, a teacher has to be on edge.  This is true whether students are very responsive (you must be sharp in allowing all students to share ideas and sharp in helping bring those ideas together in a useful way), or whether students are not responsive at all (for then you must figure out way to get responses, or ways to usefully manage the time despite unresponsiveness).  And for the classes I teach (composition and literature), discussion is much preferred to lecture.

Again, this alertness is a good thing.  That's not to say it is bad teaching to get comfortable and familiar with your material and and the way you address that material.  But when discussing literature, I think the class is better for the students because I'm not comfortable.  When I'm edgy and alert, I'm giving students more chances to provide their own insights, and I'm sharper at finding new and creative insights based on the discussion.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Very Brief Defense of Anthropomorphism

Science has shown us that animals are intelligent beings (many species of animals experience emotions, have relationships and social structures, some studies even find animals displaying imagination and deceit).

But the specific intelligence of animals may be difficult to express to humans. So when childrens' books or movies give animals human characteristics, they are merely translating the animal's mental, emotional, and social worlds into human terms. Anthropomorphism can be seen as a translation of animal characteristics, not an artificial application of human characteristics onto animals.

Marc Bekoff makes a similar defense of anthropomorphism in Animals Matter. Responding to Wittgenstein's claim that "If a lion could talk, we would not understand him," Bekoff writes

"In order to talk about the world of animals, we have to use whatever language we speak. So, when we want to describe what an animal may be feeling, we tend to use the same words that we would choose to describe our own human feelings or intentions" (38-39).

I think the benefits of anthropomorphism extend into childrens' literature, television, and film.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Torrential Downpour

Teaching fear: rational or irrational?
I usually focus very well during class, but if I'm reading something aloud, and its the third time in the day I'm teaching the same section, and especially if I'm reading aloud something I've written, I admit that my mind sometimes wanders as I repeat the words on the page.

Afterward I'm always terrified: I was standing in front of the class saying words I was not conscious of saying. What if instead of reading the words, I said whatever it is my mind wanders to? What if I said something wildly inappropriate (if my mind wandered to a dirty joke I saw in a movie or TV show the night before, or hell, if I thought of a Philip Roth novel)?

This has never happened--I always apparently do an accurate job reading the text even if my mind is not focused (I do work with the written word for a living, after all). But on the rare times this happens, I'm always relieved when students ask me questions after class (I assume that if I said something crazy, they wouldn't ask me about basic class things like everything is normal).

Is this a rational or irrational fear? I should probably just make sure to focus my mind on the text I'm reading.

Present Tense in The Namesake
I usually find fiction written in the present tense irritating, phony. There's something natural about telling a story in the past tense, something empty and artificial about telling a story about right now.

In Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake, though, I am seeing the present tense as a considered and effective aesthetic choice. I'm not far into the book, but so far it takes place entirely in America--at least in the present tense. There is a past tense narration for one anecdote from Ashima's life in India, and a past tense narration for one longer anecdonte from Ashoke's life in India. The form suggests theme: life in India was past, life in America is now. There are few sentences that refer to the Ganguli family in India in the present tense (in one significant passage, the family prepares to take a trip to India, but the narration stops just as the plane leaves Boston and flies over the Atlantic).

But I'm not far into the book, and I have other ideas to flesh out later when I'm finished.

I feel like I live in two countries, so vastly different is the lifestyle of winter and summer in the upper midwest. The different clothing, the available leisure activities, the necessary chores, the very background of the world is so fundamentally different. The college semester spans these two countries, Fall Semester beginning in heat and ending in cold, Spring Semester beginning in cold and ending in heat.


Most of my family's books are piled haphazardly, cramped for space. I set up a bookshelf in the living room so I could look at beautiful books and be happy. My display choices are on the bottom, my wife's choices on top (if you care, clicking the photo should show an enlarged image).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Nonviolence and Peaceful Disposition

"but all these Vs: against!  against!  against!
  --Tony Harrison, "v."

When striving for a nonviolent treatment of people and animals, it is too easy to argue with anger and hostility.  Discussion of violence against humans often takes place in political argument, which splits into a contentious side-against-side debate without movement.  This is doubly true regarding animals: if you are arguing for nonviolence against animals, not only are you are in conflict with the vast majority of the culture, but you are fighting with people over very real, personal, day-to-day values and behavior.

I find myself wanting to avoid this contentiousness.  I want to strive for nonviolence, but I also want to strive for internal peacefulness and a peaceful relationship with other people.  To argue against warfare and against killing of animals, it is rather too easy to be angry and contentious, rather difficult to find that internal peacefulness and a peaceful way to communicate with fellow people.

I argue about other topics.  I argue about sports, but try to do so in an analytical manner, addressing the available data.  And I argue about literature (though that, too, can get too close to contentious argument over deeply held values).  

The hostility in discussion over nonviolence (against humans and animals) sometimes makes me want withdraw, to immerse myself into poetry, or into religion.  But does a peaceful disposition require one to leave the real striving to others?  Is quietude an abandonment of the effort against violence?

I hope not.  It is impossible to be entirely non-confrontational on these subjects--to say it is wrong to kill animals is a confrontation.  But I find myself wishing to have discussions based on reason, using rational argument to avoid contentiousness, avoiding insult or inflammatory language.  I hope to strive for nonviolent treatment of people and animals, but to treat opponents with dignity and to still seek an inner peacefulness.

Friday, January 23, 2009


"September 1, 1939" is a very beautiful poem, the sort that defies the need for explication.  The tone is subdued, restrained, yet strewn with big, capital-letter Concepts.  The word choice and the syntax work--the sentences suggest something mundane, but with awareness of something large, dark, significant happening above and around.  There are passages of staggeringly simple beauty, just the sort one wants to share without comment:

"Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good."

The final lines evokes a familiar theme: in a broken world losing meaning and hope, is there some small way to hold dignity?:

"May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

It seems to me a line to take with me wherever, whenever, whatever: 

Show an affirming flame.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Group Membership

Jean-Paul Sartre turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature in part because "He stated that a writer's accepting such an honour would be to associate his personal commitments with the awarding institution." As an existentialist, Sartre was staunchly individual. Furthermore, as a philosopher and artist, he may have had keener reasons to keep his own work separate from the commitments of an institution--associating himself with an institution may have tainted his independent artistic and philosophical commitments.

Does the same standard apply to any individual joining a group? Though an advocate for animal rights, I have refrained from personally joining any animal rights or animal welfare organization. PETA stands for and fights for many things I stand for, but I've often taken issue with PETA's focus and methods (I think self-promotional publicity is a close second to animal welfare in their list of priorities). Should I support a group that mostly fights for what I believe in, but which often does things I don't support? I finally did decide to join the group.

Of course, I knew they would do things that would make me embarrassed to be a part of it. As Jim Rome said on the radio today, they're over the top, and that's why you don't want them on your bad side. It's also a point my wife has made: PETA is a pushy, persistent organization--they get shit done because they're so bothersome.

But PETA, regarding Michael Vick, let it go. If you don't want to do PSAs with him or support his entry back to the NFL, fine. But brain scans and psychological tests? The man committed a crime and has spent time in prison for the crime. You should let him move on. If you don't think Vick is a good role model, that's fine: don't cheer for him. But professional football is about adults playing a game for our entertainment, not about athletes being role models to children about kindness toward animals.

This sort of inanity embarrasses me. There are all sorts of serious problems in the way animals are treated in this country--trying to prevent Michael Vick from continuing his football career, and making blatant publicity grabs with inflammatory language and demands for psychological tests, does little to help those animals.

I'm again reminded of Les Miserables. Javert cannot accept Valjean's redemption and reformation, insisting that there is something inherently criminal in Valjean's nature that cannot be changed and demands punishment. When PETA requests brain scans and psychological testing to find out if Vick is a "psychopath," they dehumanize him. They want proof he's even "mentally capable of remorse." Ingrid Newkirk, do you really want to play the role of Javert?

"PETA Withdraws PSA offer to Vick" (Sports Illustrated).
"Is Michael Vick a Clinically Diagnosed Psychopath or a Reformed Dogfighter?" (PETA)
PETA's letter to the NFL (PDF).

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Merchant of Venice

A Reader-response tour through Shakespeare's plays continues.

In acts four and five, I found myself more riveted to the text than I can ever recall being while reading Shakespeare.

If the world is a stage, what matter is the role we choose to play. 
Antonio: I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano,
A stage, where every man must play a part,
And mine a sad one.
Gratiano: Let me play the fool, (I.i. 80-83)

Though the world as stage is a common expression in Shakespeare, this particular passage uniquely hits me.  The emphasis is on the characters acting their roles--and if the world is a stage, we the players must consider our roles upon it.

I have a recurring dream in which I am an actor, but while on stage I struggle to remember my lines, my blocking, the scene I'm in, even the play I'm in.  I sometimes think this dream is where I play out my tension in life, where I may feel like I am acting a part, and I fear that soon an audience will discover that I really don't know what I'm doing.  And I'm also a recovering existentialist, so I do find this focus on the roles we choose to play interesting.   So there are reasons a passage like this draws me.

But it also makes me think about the importance of character in drama.  In fiction or poetry, there are many elements of the work that can be ascendant.  But in performed drama, character must be ascendant--it is the actors upon the stage which must command our attention.  If 20th century dramatists like Beckett, Pinter, or Stoppard worked toward abolishing the traditional conventions of drama, perhaps their greatest challenge was smashing consistent characters.

Is any racism in the play offset by the playwright's giving to Shylock this, as poignant a passage as any in Shakespeare?

"I am a Jew.  Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?  fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?" (III.i)

I have trouble believing it was an anti-Semite that wrote these lines.  Furthermore, when Shylock is accused of cruelty, he counters the accusation by referencing the cruelty of the Christian world.  In Act 3, scene 1:

"And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.  If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?  Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.  The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."

And in Act 4, scene 1, lines 90-100:

"Duke: How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?
Shylock: What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
You have among you many a purchased slave,
Which, like your asses and your dogs and your mules,
You use in abject and in slavish parts,
Because you bought them.  Shall I say to you,
'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs!
Why sweat they under burdens?  Let their beds
Be made as soft as yours, and let their palates
Be seasoned with such viands'?  You will answer,
'The slaves are ours.'"

Appearances and Disguise
In Act 3, scene 2, Bassanio has a lengthy speech on distrusting appearances, and later in the play Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men.  I've noted before that the disconnect between appearance and reality is a common theme in literature and in my lit course.  It goes further: in the composition class I teach this semester, our first unit is on Fairy Tales with an emphasis on Cinderella.  A common theme we find in Fairy Tales is deceit, disguise, and the importance of distrusting appearances.  This is theme is runs deep--it is old and ubiquitous, appearing in stories from many ages and told for many audiences.

Antonio's Nonresistance
I often read books on religious pacifism (notably works by Yoder and Tolstoy) which emphasize the Christian command not to return evil with evil, to respond to threat of violence with internal and external peace.  Antonio's words as he prepares to face his own violent death strike me as an expression in the Christian pacifist vein:

                               "I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am armed
To suffer with a quietness of spirit
The very tyranny and rage of his." (IV.i.11-14)

Mercy and Justice
I might also here reference one of the firmest lessons I took from the religion of my youth--because you are forgiven your sins, you must forgive others their sins against you.  Says a disguised Portia:

"Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation.  We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy." (IV.i.203-207)

Jesus tells a parable about a servant being forgiven a large debt, then demanding immediate payment from another servant for a small debt; when the master who forgave the large debt hears about that, he gets angry and punishes the servant.  This theme is shown in the treatment (or is it cheating?) of Shylock--he cruelly withheld mercy, and is thus treated with no mercy.   Yet I see a contradiction.  Isn't it a form of "justice" to withhold mercy from Shylock because he withheld mercy?  And didn't Portia just tout mercy over justice?  To follow the standard Portia asked of Shylock, they should now mercifully forgive Shylock, letting him go on his way without punishing him.  Though the Duke and Antonio grant him some leniency, they still do punish Shylock (pretty severely, I would think).  Shylock gets his "just" reward because he demanded justice instead of mercy--and the very people who asked him to show mercy are not now willing to show him terribly much mercy at all.

The theme of mercy gets a more light-hearted treatment in Act 5, when Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands for giving away their rings.

Sprigs on a Barrel Organ
Dostoevsky's underground man insists on irrational motivations driving human behavior, and that furthermore, these irrational drives are directly tied to free will.  Here's what Shylock has to say:

"Some men there are love not a gaping pig,
Some that are mad if they behold a cat,
And others, when the bagpipe sings i' th' nose,
Cannot contain their urine; for affection,
Master of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.  Now for your answer:
As there is no firm reason to be rend'red
Why he cannot abide a gaping pig,
Why he a harmless necessary cat,
Why he a woolen bagpipe, but of force
Must yield to such inevitable shame
As to offend, himself being offended,
So can I give no reason, nor I will not." (IV.i.48-60)

This passage perhaps makes us sprigs on a barrel organ: though we don't know the psychological reasons we loathe certain things, nonetheless we do, and are compelled beyond our will to respond in certain ways to those things we loathe.  It is not a free unreason--there are many schools of psychology that could try take us beyond "there is no firm reason."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Pleasure and Art

I would call the movie Mamma Mia! "objectively awful." I think that if you don't love ABBA, love musicals, or (possibly) like romantic comedies, then there is precisely zero chance you won't hate this movie.

But here's the thing: there are people who love ABBA, there are people who love musicals, and there are people that (possibly) like romantic comedies. So you might enjoy this movie.

I continue to assert reading as an individual activity--finding aesthetic pleasure is an intensely individual, personal, subjective experience. We can discuss objective merits of a work of literature, and certainly it is not in our individual control what books make it into our hands. But whether and to what extent we receive pleasure from a book will be dependent on subjective factors. And what we read, how we read, what sorts of things we focus on when we read, what we look for when we read, what elements of a work we enjoy, what features of writing we devote our attention to, is individual.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Break Reading

One of my reading deficiencies is American fiction of the past 60 years. I used winter break to do a little catching up, reading Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Don DeLillo's White Noise. Though I enjoyed both novels (and I want to read more Roth), I don't have a special comment to make on either (though I will note that reading DeLillo after Roth made me appreciate how "natural" a writer Roth is. DeLillo's sentences often read like those of a 20th century craftsman of fiction, Roth's never so--though this may be attributed to the narrative form of Portnoy's Complaint. I might also note that White Noise made me reflect on the level to which I fear death. Though Christian, I don't have a convicted faith in God or afterlife. I fear death enough to do what I can to extend life, hence my vegan care for my bodily health. And I do think about death every day--quite literally, probably many times a day if I focused on it. But in a relative sense, I don't think my fear of death is terribly strong. Has this parenthetical gone far enough?). But each novel evoked things in my mind, frequently other books but occasionally events. Here are some of the things each work made me think about.

Portnoy's Complaint
Roth's own Sabbath's Theater and Operation Shylock, Fowles' Daniel Martin

White Noise
Camus' The Plague, Stephen King's The Stand and Dreamcatcher, Dostoevsky's Demons, A.E. Housman's "To An Athlete, Dying Young," Tony Harrison's "v." September 11th, Hurricane Katrina

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Lingering Nature of Television

On this blog, I've sometimes argued for the merits of television as an artistic medium equal to film. But as a quality medium, television suffers from one major problem: the goal of self-perpetuation. Conflicts are not allowed to resolve themselves in a natural, organic way, and characters' lives and plot lines are often extended in an artificial manner. This is not true of all television (cable dramas and truly episodic sitcoms often escape this problem), but many shows draw out storylines in an open-ended way (for the series' run itself is open-ended). This is particularly noticeable with romance between characters: sexual tensions must remain tense, and unexpressed love must remain unexpressed, for as long as possible.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Teaching Lit

In the course of refining a general education literature syllabus, I've noticed a few common themes that repeat in the works I include. These recurring issues have mostly been unintentional.

Some of these common threads make sense. We read a lot about parent-child conflicts, and I suppose that is as close to a universal theme as you'll find--generational tension abounds in the history of Western literature.

Another common theme is "Ideal versus Reality." I do have a theory on why so many works involve some exploration of a fantasy, image, or ideal conflicting with reality. Fiction is fake, phony, not real. When devoting energy to making up stories, to telling of things that never happened, the writer may become keenly aware of the tension between fantasy and reality (or may feel driven to work out this tension in art). Many writers confront the fakery of fiction directly with metafiction, but even those that don't feel that tension, and so that conflict of an image against reality recurs in literature.

But one unintended subject I always find is insanity ("The Yellow Wallpaper," The Bluest Eye, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, King Lear, Death of a Salesman, Equus). I still don't have a coherent theory on why I fill the course with books about madness. Is it my own esoteric selection process? Or is insanity a very common subject of literature? And to either of those questions, why?

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Aestheticism: art as entertainment?

Let me start by admitting that I'm doubtful a distinction between art and entertainment is anything other than arbitrary. But a question came to me while lying in bed unable to sleep.

Does "art for art"s sake" turn art into entertainment? More specifically, if literature exists for no sake other than itself, and if literature can teach us about nothing but itself, then how does it differ from other forms of entertainment (say, a derivative sitcom, or a board game)? It is a different pleasure, but is it a fundamentally different type of pleasure?

Certainly there is a difference in the act of creation, but I'm considering this question as a reader, not a writer. When I choose what to do with my time, if I read a book rather than watch a derivative sitcom, or play a board game, how is the reading different than those other activities?

I certainly think something different occurs when I choose to read a work of literature over other forms of entertainment. But then, I have some quirky (perhaps mystical) beliefs about literature's purposes and possibilities.

One might go further to seek the differences between reading a novel instead of other types of (non-fiction) writing (what is fundamentally different between reading, say, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint or Erik Erikson's Young Man Luther?). I'd ask that not to say there is no difference, but to know what those differences are (and to seek what similarities in the reading experience there may be).

But these may be stupid questions, mere garbage caused by the late hour.

Monday, January 05, 2009

I recommend

Hamlet 2. I laughed and laughed. Big Steve Coogan fan.