Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Double Edged Sword

I never meant for this blog to turn into a rant against Taiwan, but here I go again with another pet peeve about living here. Don't get me wrong, I like it here. I'm happier here than I was for the last few years before I left Seattle. Still, there are some things about Taiwan that can drive a Westerner nuts.

For example, you generally don't tip at restaurants. This can be a good thing, as it helps to keep dining out affordable. The flip side is that table service is really terrible. This is partly because in traditional Chinese dining, dishes are brought out to the table one at a time and everyone shares. Unfortunately, they haven't figured out that when serving western-style meals, everyone should receive their food at the same time. Beyond that, however, it is obvious that servers here have little incentive to provide good service, so they don't.

Another example is that it is impossible to get decent service on a scooter or even on a bicycle. The shops don't charge for labor, which makes repairs much cheaper than they would be in the US, but if the repair doesn't involve replacing a part, they generally just won't do it. My scooter is running really poorly. It needs a tune up. I've brought it to three shops, and they all say the same thing, "Your scooter is old. You should buy a new one." One guy went as far as to put it up on its stand and rev the motor, but that was the most anyone would do. No checking the spark plug, no adjusting the air/fuel mixture, nothing. Since those tasks don't necessarily require parts replacement, they won't do them. Another problem with most of the scooter shops here is that they don't like to have you leave your scooter with them to work on it. If you pull in with a problem, they will try to do what they can to get you back on the road immediately, even if it doesn't really address the fundamental problem. It boils down to no one wanting to, or having any incentive to, take the time to do quality work.

You see the same thing in a lot of the workmanship here. Construction is slipshod, roadwork is sloppy, even civil engineering seems to be done without any planning. Speaking of planning, urban planning doesn't seem to exist. The result is a fairly chaotic traffic situation, and buildings that look dilapidated a year or two after they are constructed.

I think part of the problem is that there is a sharp distinction between the laboring class and the blue and white collar class. Construction workers, truck drivers, movers, and other laborers are invariably coarse, bin lan-chewing, loud-talking, drunk-in-the-morning types. I assume that they earn very little, and probably have very little education. Since they have little incentive to do a good job, and because most of them are in a semi-stupor from drinking wispey and chewing betelnut, their work is below western standards.

All this being said, I still like it here. Besides, the opinions here are just that, opinions. I've been here long enough to have seen plenty of examples of all of what I just wrote, but no one can see everything, and I'm sure there are plenty of exceptions to my observations.

I hope I can find an exception to the scooter shop situation.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Future Me


Here's something kind of weird I found: a website where you can write an email to yourself and have it delivered at whatever date you want in the future.

It's called future me dot org.

I think the idea is that you think about where you want to be with your life at some time in the future, then write an email to remind yourself of what your goals are (or at least what they were at the time you wrote the email).

Maybe that is the idea. I don't really know.

I sent an email to myself to be delivered in one year. It was actually kind of hard to come up with what to write. I've never been all that goal oriented, opting instead for the "bend like the willow" philosophy (or lack of philosophy). I wish I'd copied what I wrote so I could post it here, but I didn't, and I really don't remember. It was probably something trite. I'm sure I'll get it in a year and delete it before reading it on the assumption that it is SPAM.

Maybe I'll start sending one to myself every month, or week, or day! That'll keep me honest!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Catching Up With a Little Rant About Noise


It has been a long time since I really wrote anything in this blog. First I was just too busy with homework and studying for exams. Then I just got lazy. It seems like the less I have to do, the lazier I get. So I have just been posting a bunch of stuff I wrote for school a long time ago.

So what is up in Hsinchu? Well, right now I can hear the garbage truck roaming around the neighborhood. A funny thing about Taiwan is that the garbage trucks play music--much like the ice cream trucks in the States. Many of them play Für Elise, but mine plays something else that I can't quite place. When you hear the music getting close to your home, you bring your trash down to the street and throw it in the truck. If you live in a more up-scale apartment building, you might have a dumpster or something on the premises where you can put your trash anytime, and then someone else deals with it.

Here are a few videos (not mine--I swiped them from YouTube) of Taiwan garbage trucks:







This system seems to work fairly well, but a big problem for me isthat while classes are in session, I am seldom home for the garbage pick up. Last semester I was never home when the recycling truck came around (it only comes twice a week). I was up to my ears in beer cans by the end of five months. I'm sure I'm not the only person whose schedule conflicts with the trash pick up, but then again very few people live alone in Taiwan, so I suppose in most households there is usually someone at home who can carry out the trash when the truck comes.

Another problem is the noise factor. After a while you get used to the truly annoying tinny insane-asylum music, even when you can hear several trucks in different parts of the neighborhood all playing the same song at the same time but out of sync with each other. Being inured to noise pollution, however, is not a good thing.

It seems like they could come up with something more efficient. The trucks come twice a day in my neighborhood, which seems like a big waste of gas and effort, and which causes a lot of noise. I guess they come more than once to help make sure someone will be home when the trash collector comes, but if people could just put there garbage in a dumpster of some kind, then the truck could come only once a day. Maybe even once a week, though the warm climate might make that unfeasible.

Noise is second only to traffic on my list of annoyances in Taiwan. You would think that in a country where people live piled on top of each other in such density, there would be some concept of respect for other people's right to peace and quiet. Quite the opposite seems to be true. People here seem to have no inhibitions about making noise in just about any way possible, at just about any time of the day or night. One thing that really bugs me is people who shout on their cellphones. Old people are particularly guilty of this, as if they don't understand the concept that the very purpose of a phone is to make it unnecessary to shout. Of course there are also the young cretins that, in an attempt to be cool, supe up their scooters so they sound twice as loud as normal. Someone should clue these jokers into the fact that it is impossible to make a scooter cool. Motorcycles are cool. Scooters, by definition, are not cool.

I've already gone on at length about another source of noise in my blog entry "The Noisiest Place on Earth." Just a little update on that--now that almost every unit in my apartment building has, one-by-one, been renovated with a jackhammer, the unit directly across from mine in the next building is being rebuilt. It never stops.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Tolstoy's "Childhood, Boyhood, Youth"

January 29, 1996

Dear Willis and George,

As I was traveling, just after New Year’s, in nineteenth century Russia, I met a very interesting figure. His name was Nikolai Petrovich. I would like to describe him to you.

I was lucky enough to be welcomed into young Nikolai’s home at his father’s family estate of Petrovskoe. You can imagine the curiosity with which the family and their servants regarded me. It is not often that they had received a guest from the late twentieth century. However, Natalya Nikolayevna, Nikolai’s mother, was in the habit of providing lodging to the wandering religious lunatics that were so common at that time so it was not such a stretch for her to accept me as one more soul in need of shelter and nourishment. Nikolai’s father seemed less tolerant of my presence, but was apparently resigned to providing for whatever strays his wife saw fit to bring home. All in all I was able to enter their home and observe them with a minimum of disruption in the daily routine. After a few comments on the strangeness of my accent when speaking either Russian, French, or German, the members of the household settled back into their normal way of life.

Once I was settled into my lodgings, which consisted of a small and spartan bedroom located on the top floor of the house near the attic, I began to observe the family and to make note of their activities. The choice of which person in the household I should make the object of my study was not difficult. I decided to focus my attention on Nikolai, the younger of the two boys in the family. Piotr Alexandrich and Natalya Nikolayevna were out of the question. The former because he made it quite obvious that he could barely stand to be in the same room with me, and the latter because she was such an incredible bore. Volodya, the older boy, was a nice enough young man, but was at the age at which everything must be treated with a mild contempt, lest he accidentally display some childish emotion. The other children were too young, and the servants, who considered me a freeloader and probably an agent of Satan, refused to speak to me. Ten year old Nikolai, on the other hand, was at the age when some of the magic of childhood still exists.

At first glance, Nikolai was not an attractive child. He had somewhat small and closely set gray eyes, a broad nose, and thick lips. To top it all off he was cursed with a head of hair that refused any attempt by a brush or comb to restrain its enthusiasm for standing straight up. The greatest disadvantage to his looks, however, was that somehow (perhaps by means of a mirror) he had apparently decided that he was quite ugly. As a result he had developed the bad habit common to ugly people of consciously trying to conceal those features which are considered to be the cause of the ugliness. Of course this only brings the feature into greater clarity for the observer. Nevertheless, when caught unaware, or when he was too distracted by other considerations to concentrate on his own appearance, Nikolai Petrovich projected a warmth and charm that was much more attractive than any physical feature could be.

I have to admit at this point that Nikolai chose me as an object of study in much the same way that I chose him. I never really had to ask probing questions of him, as he usually volunteered as much information about himself as I could want. In addition, he asked many questions of me which I had to be careful in answering lest I confuse his young mind as to the nature of my “voyage” to his country. As to the condition of his mind, I have to say that it was in the full flower of a young boy on the cusp of childhood. He was full of energetic imaginings and playful exuberance that seemed to enliven any activity in which he took part. The only times this energetic good nature seemed to flag was when his big brother teased him about being childish, or when someone called attention to his looks.

Despite his immediate liking for me, I came to realize that Nikolai was indeed a very shy boy. A good deal of this shyness obviously was rooted in his dissatisfaction with his appearance. However I feel that it could also be attributed in part to an acute sensitivity he had to pleasing others. He seemed always to be berating himself for one failure or another, and always seemed to measure himself by unattainable standards. An example of this was on the recent hunt that the family went on. Nikolai was sent to catch a hare, and when one did not present itself immediately, he began to daydream as young boys will. When suddenly a hare appeared, it caught him off-guard and got away. Nikolai berated himself soundly for this innocent mishap, which was only observed by Turka, the huntsman.

The day after the hunt he and his father and Volodya set out for Moscow. Piotr Alexandrich had decided that the boys needed to grow up in less “country” surroundings. They were to stay with Nikolai’s grandmother, who inspired respect and fear in the boys that bordered on awe. Nikolai was soon over the grief he felt at parting with his mother and was kept occupied by the newness of his situation. It was at this time that I encountered another example of his shyness. It so happened that shortly after their arrival, the boys were instructed to prepare gifts for their grandmother’s name-day celebration. Nikolai prepared a lovely little poem for her, but, as he confided to me, there was a certain line that caused him some anxiety. In this line he wrote that he and his brother would love their grandmother as much as their own mother. To anyone other than Nikolai, this seems perfectly natural and even mundane. To him, however, it was the cause of a good deal of guilt. It seems that he was afraid that people would think that he had forgotten his mother and replaced her with someone else. To the outside observer this may seem like a trivial consideration, but to Nikolai it was of the gravest importance. His anxiety and shyness grew to an almost unbearable pitch as the time at which he was to present the poem approached. At the time he related this story to me, somewhat later that day, he seemed quite recovered from his ordeal. However, from what he told me, I would guess that until his grandmother and his father showed their approval of his poem, he must have been mortified.

Although Nikolai was a particularly sensitive young fellow, I have to admit that he was not immune to certain character flaws that are all too common among youngsters. One of these flaws was a kind of hero-worship that he had for one of his relations, one Seriozha Ivin. Seriozha was a bit older than Nikolai, and very attractive. From the time Nikolai first met him, he was under his influence. Strangely enough, Nikolai rarely ever talked to Seriozha, but was content to admire him from a distance. This was all well and good enough, except for the fact that Seriozha was quite a braggart and a bully and he was aware of the power he had over others and used it to his advantage. Because of this Nikolai was led into doing things that normally would have been contrary to his gentle nature. One example of this was the way Nikolai took part in the bullying of poor Ilinka Grap. At the time he knew it was wrong to treat the boy in the way they did, but under the influence of Seriozha, he went along with the prank anyway. I fear that when Nikolai grows up, he will look back on that chapter of his life with some measure of shame.

Happily the reign of power which Seriozha held over Nikolai did not last for long. At the ball thrown in honor of his grandmother’s name-day, Nikolai met Sonya, and immediately transferred all the affection he had for Seriozha to her. This was not Nikolai’s first experience with love, for I had seen the way he gazed at Katya back at Petrovskoe. However, this new love that infused his young soul was like nothing he had ever experienced. He found that he no longer particularly cared for Seriozha, and he could barely contain himself when talking about Sonya. It was quite gratifying to see a young person so energized with emotion as Nikolai was that night after the ball. It was as if all of his insecurities and shyness had been drained away, leaving only his new-found love.

Now I must address the sadder portion of my account. Of course we know that all of the people that I met on my “journey” are long since dead, from the oldest to the youngest. For that reason I was able to remain unusually objective when I found out that Natalya Nikolayevna was ill and was not expected to recover. As soon as Piotr Alexandrich received news of her illness, he prepared to take the boys back home. We arrived back at Petrovskoe very shortly before she died. The entire family was plunged into an abyss of grief. Poor Nikolai once again was caught up in the riot of his young emotions. He was naturally stunned by the sudden loss of his dear mother, yet he was unsure of how to show his grief. More than anything else he felt guilty for having so much sadness for himself, and not enough for his mother. He greatly feared that people would not think him appropriately grief-struck so he affected the actions of one completely out of control with despair. Thank heavens for Natalya Savishna! She, who grieved more than anyone at her mistress’s death, was the only one who was able to help poor Nikolai in his grief. It was with her that Nikolai was able to talk about his feelings, and it was she who showed him that it was proper for each person to show his grief in his own way.

Poor Natalya Savishna! Nikolai didn’t realize yet how important this old woman had been in his life. I think that only with the death of his motherdid he begin to see how much that old woman really loved them all. Hopefully Nikolai learned from her about the unselfishness of love.

Shortly after the funeral I was obliged to take leave of Nikolai and his family. I was sorry to leave, yet eager to return to my own time and place. As to Nikolai, I think that he was about to embark on a journey of his own. With the death of his mother his childhood had come to a close. It was now time for him to move on to the next phase in his life, that of boyhood.

I hope this letter has helped you both to get a better picture of Nikolai and his family. I have to say that this whole trip has been quite an experience for me. I must go now, but I will see you soon in class.


Sincerely,

Mike McCool

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Art and Literature of the Spanish Civil War

César Vallejo’s “Spain, Take This Cup From Meand The Art and Literature of the Spanish Civil War: A Retrospective Analysis


Before I took this class, my knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was very limited. However, through the works we have examined in the forms of film, novels, poetry, music, and historical documentation, as well as from the first hand accounts of the Lincoln Brigade veterans, I have attained a greater understanding of the issues and events involved in the conflict. The remarkable amount of literary and artistic work that the war generated made it difficult to choose a topic. As I am a Comparative Literature major, it at first seemed natural to choose one of the novels we read to analyze, but that seemed a little dull. I also considered expanding on my rather cursory treatment of the series of films that accompanied this course. I chose not to do so because I felt that my final project should delve into some new territory. Finally I decided to take César Vallejo’s poem, Spain, Take This Cup From Me, and try to analyze it in terms of some of the other material we have covered in class.


One reason I decided to take this approach is that I have always had a measure of trouble in understanding poetry. My hope is that by looking hard at this poem and what it does to me as a reader, I will acquire new insight into poetry in general, and into this poem in particular. I also decided to follow this path because I feel that this course is one of the most interesting that I have experienced in my academic career, and I hope that by drawing on the material we have looked at in and out of class, I can summarize that experience.

Why this poem, though? I decided to use “Spain, Take This Cup From Me” as the focus of my paper because I feel that it captures the essence of what was at stake in the war by transcending the divisions of the right and left. In other words, to Vallejo, Spain was more than the sum of its rival factions, and that which was at stake was more than the supremacy of one political model over another. In this way Vallejo’s Spain was a symbol for the whole world. The fall of Spain, therefore, is really the failure of civilization in general. To Vallejo, Spain is the earth and Spain’s people are the children of that earth. The opening line of the poem reinforces this image as the narrative voice calls out, “Children of the world . . .”

The fall, or failure, thus has implications throughout the world. Vallejo’s call serves to symbolize the global implications of the war. This movement from specific to general is also used very effectively in the film The Spanish Earth, in which the effects of the war on a single village are projected on the rest of Spain, and from there to the entire world. This also brings to mind the international make-up of the armies of both sides. This international aspect of the war is one of its most fascinating and revealing facets. Almost all of the works we looked at in class touched on this international aspect in some way. Both Homage to Catalonia and For Whom the Bell Tolls (film and novel) had for their primary characters international volunteers. Both the first film we saw in class (the work of Abe Osheroff, a Lincoln Brigade veteran) and the first film in the film festival, The Good Fight, dealt primarily with the experiences and motivations of the international volunteers. ¡Ay Carmela! dealt with the role of foreign combatants, not only on the side of the Republic, but on the side of Franco. In this film, as in many of the other works we studied, the role of international forces on the side of the fascists is made clear. Most of the military people in the film are either Italians or Poles (as Republican POWs). In the climactic scene, we even catch a glimpse of some Moors sitting in the back of the theater. Much of the poetry in the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse was penned by non-Spanish people. Vallejo himself is from Peru, not Spain. He shared with people like Robert Jordan and George Orwell the conviction that what was happening in Spain was but a sign of what could happen in the rest of the world.

The title of the poem, taken from the plea of Christ as he contemplated his impending martyrdom in Gethsemane, gives cause to think that for Vallejo, the outcome of the events in Spain was not completely unexpected. He says, “how early in the sun what I was telling you!” as if to say “I told you so.” However, just as Christ knew that his fate was decided, but was compelled to make a last, desperate plea to God, Vallejo seems to be hesitant to give voice to his beliefs outright. His repeated “I mean, it’s just a thought” when referring to the fall of Spain is reminiscent of Christ’s “nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” This attitude of semi-denial can also be seen in the character Robert Jordan. He is certain that his mission is doomed to failure, yet he is unable to deviate from his path. Also, the character Carmela must have known what the outcome of her actions would be, but still does what she feels she must under the given circumstances. This all boils down to the idea of doing what one believes to be right in the greater scheme of things, despite the fact that the consequences will be fatal. This sentiment was evident in the comments of the Lincoln Brigade veterans in the question and answer sessions at the film festival. They new what was at stake, and they were willing to lay down their lives for it. Here again the movement from one’s specific actions to their effect on “the big picture” can be seen.


The first stanza has many other important and evocative lines in it. The passage, “if Spain falls/from the sky downward” brings to mind the role of air power in the war. This also ties in with the international aspect of the conflict in that most of the pilots and planes came from Germany or Italy. For Whom the Bell Tolls (novel and film) and ¡Ay Carmela! (film and song) deal with the disparity in air power between the Republic and her enemies. To Pilar and the rest of Pablo’s people, and to the band of El Sordo, the lyrics “No tenemos ni aviones/ni tanques, ni cañones . . .” take on a very real meaning. This image combined with the image of “concave temples” is especially reminiscent of the scene in Hemingway’s work in which El Sordo’s band is bombed on the concave, chancre-like hilltop by fascist planes. This is particularly true when Joaquín begins to pray as if in church as the planes move in. “Concave temples” also brings to mind the idea of bombed out churches and possibly foxholes, both common enough sights in the war.

The “two terrestrial plates” might represent the opposing sides in the conflict. The inertia embodied in such an image is an apt representation of the irreconcilable nature of the opposing positions of the Republic and her enemies. The image of Spain with her arm caught between these two forces adds weight to the concept that Vallejo’s Spain is not just the Republic, but really is much more than either side or even both sides put together. Spain is the innocent victim caught between two opposing and uncompromising opponents, and her people will be the real losers in the war. This is evidenced by the death rattle or “ancient noise” that Vallejo hears so prematurely. It is not the death rattle of Franco or of the Republic, but that of the “Children of the world,” of the hopes of the people of Spain.

The last line of the first stanza, “how old your 2 in your notebook,” brings up one of the specific losses that will be suffered by the Spanish people should the gains of the Republic be reversed due to the war. This, of course, refers to the literacy campaign launched by the Republic in order to help bring her population into the twentieth century. As we saw by the examples of Pablo and Anselmo in For Whom the Bell Tolls, the ability to read and write was a rare one for most of the people of Spain. In the film Los Santos Inocentes, we saw the result of the fascist victory in the pathetic attempts by the peasants to write their own names for the foreign ambassador. It is remarkable that the Republic continued its drive for literacy even after the war began.. One example of this literacy drive that we looked at in class was the photo of the tank driver practicing his letters while perched on the outside of his tank. It was especially exciting to be able to look at an authentic copy of the same book he was using in class. It is this dedication to the liberation of the human mind that must have influenced so many artists, writers, and intellectuals to support the Republic.


In the second stanza Vallejo blurs the roles of the fascists and the Republic. At first this is a confusing passage because it is unclear whether “mother Spain” is the Republic or the rebels. This is because throughout most of the poem, “Spain” is generally taken to mean the Republic. However, the second stanza refers to the “cross & sword” as mother Spain’s ferules. As a ferule is an instrument used to maintain discipline amongst school children (like a ruler across the knuckles), this seems to be referring to the military (sword) and the church (cross), obviously groups on the fascist side of the conflict which were used to discipline the Spanish people. This seeming paradox strengthens the idea that “Spain” is not only meant to signify the Republic, but the fascists, and all those uncommitted, too. On the other hand, mother Spain and the teacher could be read as being two distinct entities, in which case the stanza could be interpreted as saying that because mother Spain (the Republic) gave the people the gift of literacy and understanding, the teacher (the fascists) would use their instruments of control to punish them. The last line of the stanza acts to further blur the distinction between the sides. The line “she is with herself” suggests that despite her inner divisions, Spain is one entity.


In the third stanza the image of the Spanish people being children under that tutelage of the Republic is brought to full development. The consequences of a fascist victory are brought into sharper focus through a series of symbols which refer to the stunted growth of a neglected child:

children, how you will stop growing!/ . . . /how you’re never going to have more than ten teeth,/how the dipthong will remain in downstroke, the medal in tears!/How the little lamb is going to continue/tied by its leg to the inkwell!/How are you going to descend the steps of the alphabet/to the letter in which pain was born!

All of these images refer in some way to the arrested development of the newly semi-literate under a victorious Franco. The image of the lamb tied to the inkwell extends the religious symbolism that is introduced by the title. The martyred people of Spain are symbolized by this clear reference to Jesus Christ, often referred to as the lamb of God. Its being tied to the inkwell implies that being denied the opportunity for literacy, the people of Spain will remain under the yoke of ignorance.


The line “how the year is going to punish the month” apparently refers to the fact that the short term gains of the Republic will be replaced by long term repression if the Republic does not prevail. The imagery used in this stanza brings to mind the characters in Los Santos Inocentes. Childlike and even humorous in their simplicity, the main protagonist (young master’s hunting companion) and his crazy brother-in-law serve as perfect examples of the kind of backward submissiveness of which the Republic sought to rid Spain. It also utilizes the same “specific to general” imagery employed in the film The Spanish Earth.


The fourth stanza seems to be calling for quiet among the combatants and their supporters. The overall feeling of this part of the poem is that Spain is trying to choose her destiny, and she needs peace in order to make the right choice. There is an allusion to Hamlet, with Spain, not knowing what to do, consulting a living skull. I have to admit that the specifics of this stanza elude me, but the general tone creates the impression of a Spain caught in a difficult situation and in need of some kind of guidance. This may be stretching it a bit, but the dispersion of Spain’s energy in many directions might be a reference to the division between her rival factions. This could extend not only to the forces of the right and left, but to the factions within either side. We didn’t see much about divisions on the right, probably because of the authoritarian nature of its makeup. However, we did see the many divisions within the Republic which were probably at least partly responsible for some of its problems in waging the war. This is made especially apparent in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, where he describes what he sees as the outright persecution of one leftist faction, the P.O.U.M., by another, the Communist Party.


Finally, the fifth stanza returns to many of the same themes introduced earlier in the poem. As in the fourth stanza there is a call to “lower your voice” whose significance seems to be tied up in allowing Spain enough breathing room to figure out her future. It also might be a call for the rival leftist factions to put their individual agendas on the back burner for the moment in the interest of winning the war. “If the forearm lowers” refers back to the first stanza where Spain’s forearm is caught by the terrestrial plates. This forearm is a powerful image. It brings to mind our own Statue of Liberty with its raised arm holding a torch. It also reminds me of the parts Carmela played in the various stage shows she and Paulino put on for both the Republicans and the fascists. It also brings to mind several of the images in Picaso’s Guernica. Several ideas introduced earlier in the poem are reintroduced in this stanza. The forearm, the ferules, the “I mean its just a thought” come back in this section to act as reinforcements for the previously introduced ideas. The two terrestrial plates are changed into two terrestrial limbos, suggesting that whichever side wins the war, Spain’s future is uncertain. This stanza also introduces the idea of hope in the last line. By saying “Out, children of the world, go & look for her!” Vallejo appears to be saying that even if the Spanish Republic is lost, its spirit can be found again by its people if they go out and look for it. As we learned through the material we looked at in class, many of the exiled defenders of the Republic did just that, though whether they ever found it again is doubtful.

As a whole, the poem seems to be saying that the Spanish people have been kept ignorant for too long, yet the events of the time seem to point to a worsening rather than an improving of these conditions. They are referred to as children throughout the work, and they seem doomed to retain that status in the event of a fascist victory. Whatever the outcome of the war, Vallejo seems certain that the real losers will be the Spanish people, who, after enjoying a moment of liberty, seem destined to be plunged back into the darkness of repression from which they came. This echoes Orwell’s belief that even should the Republic win the war, a form of dictatorship will probably be the result.


I hope that the connections I have drawn between Vallejo’s poem and the other material in class have not been stretched too thinly. It is certain that I have missed many points of comparison that might have occurred to another reader with a different degree of knowledge on the topic. However, my purpose was really to illuminate how this poem represented the overall experience of the class, and how certain themes ran through many of the works we examined. I believe that as a poem’s meaning really lies in the experience of the reader as he or she reads it, by extension the meaning of a class is really the experience that the student has as the class progresses. For each student/reader the experience is different depending on what he or she brings to the class/poem in the first place. I brought very little to this class in terms of knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, but I leave this class with my bags stuffed with what I hope is an experience that will continue to enlighten my understanding of art, literature, history, politics, and life.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Spanish Civil War Symposium


Spanish Civil War Symposium

Of the four sessions offered at the Symposium on the History and Culture of the Spanish Civil War, I was unfortunately only able to attend the first two. The first topic discussed was “Art Under Fire,” or the role of the arts and culture in the War (presented, as you know, by Tony Geist). The second topic discussed was the historical context in which the war occurred. Dr. Peter Carroll presented this segment which dealt with the political and historical climate in Europe and the US in the years before, during, and after the war. He placed special emphasis on relations between the Soviet Union and the West, as well as the emergence of fascism. Much of the content of these two portions of the symposium concerned material that we have touched on in class or in our readings, but was presented in a more concise and focused format. For someone who had little or no previous knowledge of the Spanish Civil War, these two portions of the symposium would have provided a good working background in the elements that were involved in the conflict in terms of politics, art, culture, and history.

The symposium started with Professor Geist’s discussion of “art under fire,” or the role of culture in the war. He described the first part of this history in terms of the problems confronted by the new Republic and the steps it took to resolve them. He talked about the idealism embodied in the artists, intellectuals, and writers who worked to create the Republic and how they attempted to address the social problems in Spain through land reform and literacy campaigns. Professor Geist described the involvement of the arts community with the Republic to be a double history that involved a Republican commitment to culture as well as culture’s defense of the Republic.

The main problems confronting the young Republic were poverty and illiteracy. The former was addressed by attempts at land reform that met with limited success. The latter was addressed by broad-based literacy campaigns that were even taken into the trenches after the war broke out. In addition, a domestic peace corps was formed to take the arts to rural areas, among other things. Basically, the Republic defended the arts and encouraged literacy and culture whereas the fascists, as part of policy of terrorist attacks against civilian targets aimed at breaking the will of the people, bombed museums and libraries. The fascist attitude towards culture was expressed by a quotation attributed to Joseph Goebbels, “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.”

Professor Geist went on to say that the vast majority of artists, intellectuals, writers, and other “culture workers” were predominantly Republican in their sympathies. This is due in large part to the hostile attitude of the fascists towards free expression. This relationship of art to the conflict was symbolized by the fact that the war was framed by the deaths of the two poets Federico García Lorca and Antonio Machado. Republicans responded by forming the Alliance of Anti-fascist Individuals, a kind of “cultural militia” that turned art into a weapon. Since the Republic was poor in military supplies and was essentially cut-off from outside aid, they focused on using art as a propaganda tool in order to rally support for their cause both domestically and abroad.

An important element of “art as weapon” was poster making. Posters were made in all artistic styles and were of high quality. They ranged in size from postcards (often sent to people in foreign countries) to posters that covered the sides of entire buildings.

The next segment of the symposium was presented by Dr. Peter Carroll, the chairman of the board of the Lincoln Brigade Archives. His topic was the historical context of the Spanish Civil War. He described this context as a complex series of convergences which included Spain’s own internal situation combined with such things as the emergence of the communist party in the US and elsewhere, and the depression in the US that seemed at the time to be a sign that capitalism was failing. To this was added the complex web of international relations that formed after World War I.

His general take on why things turned out as they did in Spain was that Western nations, fearing the spread of communism more than fascism, hoped to play the two sides off against each other, thus buying time to strengthen capitalism’s role. By appeasing the fascists in Germany and Italy and essentially offering them Spain as a sacrifice, Britain, France, and the US hoped to limit the Soviet influence in Western Europe. Because of the Spanish Republic’s association with communist, socialist, and anarchist groups, it was cut off by the West. The fascists, on the other hand, were allowed to slip through enough loopholes to remain well supplied and supported.

Dr. Carroll also discussed the legacy of the attitudes that were formed during this period in history, and how they are still in effect to this day. Examples cited were the days of Hoover’s “red fascists” and some of the US’s activities in Latin America.




I wish I had been able to attend the entire symposium, however I feel that I benefited from the part I did attend. The presentations covered a lot of material and were complementary to each other in many ways. The slides of the posters also added a lot to the visual aspect of the presentation. In a way the sessions I attended worked well as a review for much of the material we’ve touched on in class in terms of the history and politics involved in the war. It also gave a good background in the general attitude of each side towards culture and art, as well as the “culture workers” attitudes towards each side. It would have been interesting to have seen some examples of fascist art, particularly in the form of posters. I think it would have helped to give a more informed perspective on the attitudes and events of the times. Far from softening the view of the fascist side (mine, at least), I think it would help to show the contrast between the sides even more clearly, especially when looked at in conjunction with the historical and political background that the symposium provided. This could also be said of the class in general. However, I would not have wanted to give up any of the works we’ve looked at as part of this class (books, posters, films, etc.) in order to make time to look at something that would probably be repugnant to me. However, I can’t help feeling that without the opposing viewpoint, my own perspective remains partly obscured.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Los Santos Inocentes: The Root Causes of the War





Los Santos Inocentes: The Root Causes of the War

I have to admit that at the beginning of this quarter I knew almost nothing about the Spanish Civil War. I had heard of the conflict, and of Franco, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Of the politics involved, I knew nothing. Of the international involvement, I knew nothing. Through this class, however, I have gained at least a beginner’s understanding of the forces at work in Spain during the twenties and thirties, and, more importantly, I have gained the desire to find out more on my own. The material we discussed in class in the form of novels, poetry, and historical records have accomplished much in developing my interest in and understanding of the war. I believe, however, that this interest and understanding would not have been as complete without the dimension added by the films we watched, both in class and in the series at the Museum of History and Industry. Each film had something unique to offer in terms of getting a grip on certain aspects of the war, whether it be the political and historical backdrop, the involvement of the “internationals,” or the effects of the war on the humans who were swept up in it against their will. Because each film was different and offered a different perspective on the conflict and its effects, and because each film was powerful enough to stand on its own as a work of art with or without the backdrop of real events (with the possible exception of The Good Fight which, being a documentary, obviously depends on its basis in fact), it is difficult to pick one out of the bunch and write about it. However, when I examine the films in terms of what the Spanish Civil War was really about, I find that the only one that comes immediately to mind is Los Santos Inocentes.

It may seem odd to choose a film that is not really about the war to exemplify what the war was about, but I think that at its most fundamental level this war, like any war, was about human relationships, between both groups and individuals. In the Spanish Civil War, the groups who wanted change were defeated by the groups who wanted to maintain the status quo. Thus the issues that brought about the desire for change were not addressed, but rather were brutally suppressed, and the status quo was strictly enforced. Los Santos Inocentes is the only film we saw that portrayed that status quo. Each of the other films’ characters were in situations beyond the norm, and therefore their actions and reactions were outside the norm. They all hated the fascists, so fascists must be bad. But what exactly was a fascist? And what did they want? What did anyone want, for that matter, other than to be or not to be a fascist or a republican? Because of this, I at first found it difficult to understand the nature of the conflict. With all of the political analysis and historical perspective and the chaos of the war itself, I still could not really grasp why the war had to happen. After experiencing Los Santos Inocentes, however, I feel that I finally have an idea of the reasons such a war was inevitable.

Quite simply, Los Santos Inocentes illustrates the inequality between aristocrat and campesino that has probably existed in Spain since before the Moors. Through the actions of the characters we see the lack of regard that the wealthy class had for those who in effect “came with the property.” Especially illustrative of this is the relation ship between the “young master” and the main protagonist who had served as the young master’s hunting companion for many years. At first there seems to be a genuine affection between the two. This illusion is dispelled soon enough, though, when we see the young master’s complete disregard for his servant’s health when he breaks his leg in a hunting accident. The master’s only concern is for how his hobby will be affected. That is to say, he considers his inconvenience to be more important than the suffering of a servant. Their pain, in his mind, is less real than his own. They are not as human as he is.

The Good Fight laid out the groundwork for understanding the Spanish Civil War in terms of the political and historical circumstances of the times, as well as how those circumstances acted to influence people from all over the world to volunteer. For Whom the Bell Tolls worked fairly well as both a novel and a film in giving me a committed outsider’s view of the war. Ay Carmella illustrated the plight of the non-combatants. Only Los Santos Inocentes dealt with the heart of the matter, with the fundamental inequality between the classes that caused the war in the first place.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Look at Stanley Fish’s "Is There a Text in This Class?"

A Look at Stanley Fish’s Is There a Text in This Class?

Stanley Eugene Fish (b.1938) is one of the chief proponents of a school of literary criticism known as reader response criticism. In fact, the school of reader response critics has even been referred to as the “School of Fish” (Murfin 129). As the name might suggest, reader response criticism emphasizes the role of the reader as crucial in determining the significance of a text. To a critic of this type, reading is seen as an activity which makes meaning in a text rather than a passive function which derives meaning from a text. In his book Is There a Text in This Class?, Fish has collected a number of his most important essays and articles in an attempt to chart the progress of his evolving interpretive method.

In the essay “Literature in the Reader,” Fish stresses the temporal nature of the reading experience as opposed to the spatial one proposed by other critics: “. . . it [the opposing school] transforms a temporal experience into a spatial one; it steps back and in a single glance takes in a whole (sentence, page, work) which the reader knows (if at all) only bit by bit, moment by moment” (Fish 44). Fish finds the meaning of the work to reside in this bit by bit knowing, the experience that an “informed reader” has as he reads, rather than from anything imbedded in the actual text. In other words, the process of enchantment/disenchantment occurs continuously throughout the reading experience. He defines his “informed reader” as having the following qualities: “The informed reader is someone who (1)is a competent speaker of the language out of which the text is built up; (2)is in full possession of ‘the semantic knowledge that a mature . . . listener brings to his task of comprehension,’ . . . ; and (3) has literary competence” (48).

This emphasis on the importance of the reader in the creation of meaning in texts raises objections among the formalists, among them William Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley. Their The Verbal Icon(1954) contains the following passage:

The Affective Fallacy is a confusion between the poem and its results (what it is and what it does) . . . It begins by trying to derive the standards of criticism from the psychological effects of the poem and ends in impressionism and relativism. The outcome . . . is that the poem itself, as an object of specifically critical judgment, tends to disappear (21).

Fish answers this by saying, “My reply to this is simple. The objectivity of the text is an illusion and, moreover, a dangerous illusion, because it is so physically convincing. . . . A line of print is so obviously there . . . that it seems to be the sole repository of whatever value and meaning we associate with it” (43). To Fish, the poem can’t disappear because it was never actually there in the first place except as a reflection of the interpretive strategy used to approach it.

Fish’s theory rejects the claims of the New Critics (formalists) that the work itself contains meaning that can be derived by a study of its formal features. Fish contends that those formal features are themselves interpretations and so any interpretation based on them is illegitimate. He does not deny the importance of formal features, but in his essay “What is Stylistics and Why are They Saying Such Terrible Things About It?,” he asserts that rather than possessing any particular meaning in and of themselves, these features “. . . acquire it . . . by virtue of their position in a structure of experience” (91). In other words, the reader brings his particular interpretive strategy (a product of his cumulative experiences) to the text and creates meaning out of the pattern of formal features that are found within it. He strengthens this argument in “What is Stylistics, Part II”:

“Here my thesis is that formal patterns are themselves the products of interpretation and that therefore there is no such thing as a formal pattern, at least in the sense necessary for the practice of stylistics: that is no pattern that one can observe before interpretation is hazarded and which therefore can be used to prefer one interpretation to another. The conclusion, however, is not that there are no formal patterns but that there are always formal patterns; it is just that the formal patterns there always are will always be the product of a prior interpretive act, and therefore will be available for discerning only so long as that act is in force”(267).

This theory ran into trouble, however, because Fish was at once denying that meaning was in the text and at the same time using the text to control the reader’s experience. He begins to address this problem in “How Ordinary is Ordinary Language?” by proposing that the reader actually makes the text by bringing to it certain assumptions that are a product of his “informedness.” By this he doesn’t mean that the reader can make up any meaning he wants. On the contrary, he states, “Mine is not an argument for an infinitely plural or open text, but for a text that is always set; and yet because it is set not for all places or all times but for wherever and however long a particular way of reading [interpretation] is in force, it is a text that can change”( 274).

Still, this seems to point out a lack of stability and consistency in interpretation that is contradicted by the fact that so many readers come up with the same general “take” on the same texts. Fish addresses this question in “Interpreting the Variorum.” He asks: “If interpretive acts are the source of forms rather than the other way around, why isn’t it the case that readers are always performing the same acts or a sequence of random acts, and therefore creating the same forms or a random succession of forms?” (167). He goes on to say, “ . . . both the stability of interpretation among readers and the variety of interpretation in the career of a single reader would seem to argue for the existence of something independent of and prior to interpretive acts . . .”(167-8). What it is that is prior to these acts is the existence of a reader’s interpretive strategy that is present before he actually approaches the work. In other words, he doesn’t have to read a work in a certain way, but, as a function of his interpretive strategy, he chooses to do so. To illustrate this he uses St. Augustine’s argument from his On Christian Doctrine that “ . . . everything in the Scriptures, and indeed in the world when it is properly read, points to (bears the meaning of) God’s love for us and our answering responsibility to love our fellow creatures for His sake” (170). If something does not seem to point in this direction, Augustine says that it is simply a figurative way of creating the same “text” and that it is the Christian’s duty to find a way to interpret (to choose to interpret) it as such. In his “Normal Circumstances and Other Special Cases,” Fish describes how baseball player Pat Kelly’s conversion is exemplary of this. Kelly credited all of his homeruns to his faith in God, and Fish points out that,

His conversion follows the pattern prescribed by Augustine in On Christian Doctrine. The eye that was in bondage to the phenomenal world (had as its constitutive principle the autonomy of that world) has been cleansed and purged and is now capable of seeing what is really there, what is obvious, what anyone who has the eyes can see: ‘to the healthy and pure internal eye He is everywhere.’ He is everywhere not as the result of an interpretive act self-consciously performed on data otherwise available, but as the result of an interpretive act performed at so deep a level that it is indistinguishable from consciousness itself (271-2).

Fish posits that this idea is really an interpretive strategy for looking at the world, and a very successful one at that. In the same way, he says, readers choose, on a level that is “indistinguishable from consciousness itself,” to interpret texts either as the same or different and this choice produces the sameness or differentness of the texts’ formal features.

This may shed some light on why an individual reader may read a text one way or another, but it doesn’t address why separate readers often have the same (or at least similar) understanding of the same text. Fish states that “they don’t have to” but when they do it is because of his “ . . . notion of interpretive communities . . .” which are “ . . . made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing [creating meaning in] texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions” (171). This idea of interpretive communities is central to Fish’s position, as is evidenced by the fact that Is There a Text in This Class is subtitled The Authority of Interpretive Communities. In the introduction to the book he makes this position clear by stating, “ . . . the act of recognizing literature is not constrained by something in the text, nor does it issue from an independent and arbitrary will; rather, it proceeds from a collective decision as to what will count as literature, a decision that will be in force only so long as a community of readers or believers continues to abide by it” (11). This implies once again that the meaning of a text is brought to it by readers and that it can change from place to place and from time to time.

In Normal Circumstances, Fish’s idea that a text, though fixed at a certain time and place, can change over time brings up the concept of “context” as is illustrated in the following passage:

. . . we usually reserve ‘literal’ for the single meaning a text will always (or should always) have, while I am using ‘literal’ to refer to the different single meanings a text will have in a succession of different situations. There always is a literal meaning because in any situation there is always a meaning that seems obvious in the sense that it is there independently of anything we might do. But that only means that we have already done it, and in another situation, when we have already done something else, there will be another obvious, that is, literal, meaning . . .We are never not in a situation. Because we are never not in a situation, we are never not in the act of interpreting. Because we are never not in the act of interpreting, there is no possibility of reaching a level of meaning beyond or below interpretation (276).

In other words, everything is always already in a context, and it is because of this context that sentences have meaning.

Fish takes his argument a step further by contesting the distinction between direct and indirect speech acts. Direct speech acts are ones in which the meaning of the utterance is clearly imbedded in its “text.” Indirect speech acts are ones in which the meaning lies outside the “text” but is understood by the hearer due to a shared contextual understanding with the speaker. In both cases the contextual understanding of the utterance is typically considered to be subject to “normal” circumstances. In other words, the hearer knows what the speaker is talking about, whether he uses direct or indirect language, because the utterance and its reception occur in a situation that lies in the realm of both parties’ understanding. It is this idea of normal circumstances with which Fish takes issue. He says, “ . . . I am making the same argument for ‘normal context’ that I have made for ‘literal meaning’ . . . There will always be a normal context, but it will not always be the same one” (287). As an example he uses John Searle’s use of the following situation:

Searle begins by imagining a conversation between two students. Student X says, “Let’s go to the movies tonight,” and student Y replies, “I have to study for an exam.” The first sentence, Searle declares, “constitutes a proposal in virtue of its meaning,” but the second sentence, which is understood as a rejection of the proposal, is not so understood in virtue of its meaning because “in virtue of its meaning it is simply a statement about Y” (61, 62). It is here, in the assertion that either of these sentences is ever taken in the way it is “in virtue of its meaning,” that this account must finally be attacked. For if this were the case, then we would have to say that there is something about the meaning of a sentence that makes it more available for some illocutionary uses than for others, and this is precisely what Searle proceeds to say about “I have to study for an exam”: “Statements of this form do not, in general, constitute rejections of proposals, even in cases in which they are made in response to a proposal. Thus, if Y had said I have to eat popcorn tonight or I have to tie my shoes in a normal context, neither of these utterances would have been a rejection of the proposal” (62) (286).

At this point, Fish asks “Normal for whom?” in regards to Searle’s proposed normal context. He then goes on to list a number of situations in which eating popcorn and tying shoes could be taken as a rejection of a proposal as long as both X and Y were privy to the circumstances. To the argument that these circumstances are special as opposed to normal, Fish answers that “‘normal’ is content specific and to speak of a normal context is to be either redundant (because whatever in a given context goes without saying is the normal) or to be incoherent (because it would refer to a context whose claim was not to be one)” (287). He does not intend to imply that an utterance can mean anything, but, rather, that its meaning is subject to certain constraints: “ . . . chaos . . . would be possible only if a sentence could mean anything at all in the abstract.” He goes on to point out, however, that “A sentence . . . is never in the abstract; it is always in a situation, and the situation will already have determined the purpose for which it can be used” (291).

It is difficult to place Fish in relation to the other critics we have examined in class. He seems to be anti-structuralist, anti-formalist, and anti-stylist, yet he does not deny the validity of many of their premises, only the conclusions they derive from them. Essentially Fish’s position seems to be composed of the ideas that 1) reading is an activity, 2) rather than being imbedded in formal features, the meaning of any text is brought to it by the reader’s interpretive strategy, 3) interpretive communities make it possible for there to be some agreement on the meanings of texts, 4)all acts of interpretation occur in some context or other. These seem to be straightforward and even obvious assertions, yet they seem to frighten many critics. They apparently feel the same way that Wimsatt and Beardsley do, that Fish’s method leads to a lack of certainty. Fish himself does not try to argue against this claim directly. In fact, at the end of Interpreting the Variorum he himself admits this uncertainty when discussing how one can know to which interpretive community one belongs. He says, “The answer is he can’t, since any evidence brought forward to support the claim would itself be an interpretation . . .” All one can have as far as proof of membership is a “ . . . nod of recognition from someone in the same community . . .” He ends this essay with the only words that someone who speaks from his viewpoint can truly maintain with any certainty: “I say it [we know] to you now, knowing full well that you will agree with me (that is, understand) only if you already agree with me” (173).


Works Cited

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine, trans. D.W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958), p. 13.

Fish, Stanley Eugene. Is There a Text in This Class?, Cambridge: Harvard, 1980.

Murfin, Ross C.“Reader Response Criticism and The Dead: What is Reader Response Criticism?” Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism: James Joyce, The Dead, ed. Daniel R. Schwarz (Boston: St. Martin’s, 1994) 125-133.

Searle, John R. “Indirect Speech Acts,” in Syntax and Semantics, Volume 3: Speech Acts, ed. Peter Cole and Jerry Morgan (New York: Academic Press, 1975), pp. 60-62.

Wimsatt, William K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon, Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1954.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Secondary Joyce Paper: Reader Response Criticism

This is a paper I wrote in June of 1996. It is based on Peter J. Rabinowitz' essay "A Symbol of Something: interpretive Vertigo in 'The Dead'." I was kind of interested in the Reader Response school of thought at that time.

Secondary Joyce Paper: Reader Response Criticism

Peter J. Rabinowitz begins his essay, “‘A Symbol of Something’: Interpretive Vertigo in ‘The Dead’” by describing the scene in “The Dead” in which Gabriel looks up at Gretta on the staircase and feels “interpretive vertigo” (137) when trying to understand the feelings the scene evokes in him. He gives examples of formalist and psychoanalytic explanations of the phenomenon of interpretive vertigo or ambiguity, then proceeds to dismiss them as inadequate. As an alternative he introduces the idea of examining “ . . . the interpretive procedures that readers are likely to bring to bear on the text” (138).

His next step is to define the starting premises of his argument: 1)reading is an activity or process, 2)the act of reading changes the text, and 3)the changes that take place are governed by rules. By this he means that in the act of reading, a reader constructs certain meanings out of the “raw material” of the text, and does so according to some sort of “ . . . more or less communally agreed upon procedures of transformation” (139).

From here Rabinowitz moves on to classify these procedures into four groups: 1)rules of notice that draw our attention to certain parts of the text, 2)rules of signification that give meaning to the details selected by the rules of notice, 3)rules of configuration which fit these details into familiar patterns, 4)rules of coherence that make everything in the text fit together as a unified whole.

He goes on to qualify the idea of rules by saying that which rules are utilized varies according to the reader and the reading situation, and that these differences are created not by the text, but by the reader. This is what causes “interpretive disagreement” (141), and can occur not only between readers, but between readings by the same person.

Rabinowitz proceeds to assert that the rules that govern reading are learned throughout one’s life, first through exposure to simple narratives, and increasingly to the theories that attempt to explain them. He says, “ . . . reading is always reading in a particular cultural context, which . . . predetermines the nature of that reading experience” (141). It is because of the particular “culture” in which Joyce’s works are read that we as readers experience interpretive vertigo.

In order to create “ . . . a model for thinking about vertigo in ‘The Dead’ . . .” Rabinowitz generalizes that readers are responding to the intersection of conflicting rules. The rules he describes are: 1)Rule of Hyperdense Intertextuality, 2)Rule of Infinite Etymology, 3)rule of coherence. The first two are both rules of signification which serve to connect the work to other works and to the associations of the actual words used. They are particular to reading Joyce as they, unlike most interpretive strategies, do not exclude certain associations by affirming others. In other words, in Joyce, all connections are valid. The third, more general rule of coherence is that which creates the interpretive conflict. In other words, if everything fits together [coherence], how can widely differing interpretations and associations be valid? As Rabinowitz states, “The result of this intersection of rules is an unresolved dissonance in the reading process” (146). Thus, as readers, we feel vertigo.

Finally Rabinowitz explains what he feels is gained by this type of analysis. First off he asserts that “ . . . if . . . self-consciousness, in the sense of self-knowledge, is an inherently valuable thing, then coming to understand what we are doing when we are reading ‘The Dead’ . . . is intellectually valuable in and of itself, even if it does not alter the way in which we interpret the story” (146). In other words, by examining how we approach and interpret the story, we learn something valuable about ourselves. Secondly, he asserts that “ . . . this approach to thinking about the story liberates our reading as well. For as soon as we recognize that the vertigo found in the story is the product of readers rather that inherent in the text, then we open ourselves up to alternative ways of experiencing ‘The Dead’” (147).

The Rabinowitz essay is helpful in understanding “The Dead” because it stresses the importance of what the reader brings to the work. His method of analysis, rather than trying to assert that Joyce was trying to do this or that, yet at the same time not discounting the author’s intentions, asserts that the experience of reading “The Dead” is the story’s real meaning. As that experience is different for each reader, so is the meaning. At the same time, there is enough common ground among readers to allow for a shared feeling of disorientation or ambiguity in light of the associations connected to the work and the feelings of the characters. That is why most readers feel a kind of “vertigo” when reading “The Dead,” even though each reader’s vertigo might be somewhat different from any other’s.

I feel that the “Reader Response” school of criticism makes a strong case for understanding ambiguous texts for the reason that it doesn’t really try to explain them. Instead it tries to examine what about them is ambiguous and why. Since it stresses the reader’s contribution and doesn’t focus exclusively either on the text or the author’s intentions, it makes it possible for a less sophisticated reader to gain something worthwhile from a work without having to understand all of the possible associations and connections. As long as the reader recognizes that the connections exist, and is comfortable with the ones he is familiar with and how they work in the story, he can construct a satisfying meaning from the work. In the case of “The Dead” that meaning generally involves a degree of uncertainty or interpretive vertigo. Since that is precisely what Gabriel is feeling concerning his life and relationships, then it follows that the reader should experience a similar sensation.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Death of Prince Andrei: An Awakening

The Death of Prince Andrei: An Awakening

Prior to his being mortally wounded at the battle of Borodino, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky has been existing completely in life affirmation. He moves in both the reactive world - dwelling on the wrongs done to him by Kuragin, Napoleon and Natasha - and in the envisioned world - planning the duel he intends to have with Anatole when they meet and keeping busy with various tasks. He is obsessed with an image he has of the perfect state of things, symbolized by the lofty sky at Austerlitz. He constantly tries to instill this loftiness in the people and activities that he associates himself with: “All life appeared to him like magic-lantern pictures at which he had long been gazing through a glass by artificial light....Glory, the commonweal, love for a woman, the fatherland itself-how grand those pictures appeared . . . and with what profound meaning they seemed to be filled” (925-6). Although he has often been frustrated by what he has seen as life’s short-comings, he has always attributed those short-comings to whom or what-ever has disappointed him. It isn’t until he is wounded that he realizes “There was something about this life that I did not and do not now understand” (975).

His relationship with Natasha and its corruption is a prime example of this. “I believed in some sort of ideal love that was to keep her faithful to me” he thinks as he contemplates the likelihood of his death in the coming battle (926). Unfortunately, when the real-life Natasha fails to live up to his lofty ideals, Prince Andrei turns bitter: “But it [the love between him and Natasha] was all so very much simpler....So horribly simple and revolting” (926).

In fact, Andrei show similar revulsion towards anything associated with the earth or flesh. When he returns to the now-abandoned Bald Hills and sees the soldiers swimming “He long[s] to be in the water, however muddy it might be . . .” yet when asked whether he would like to have a swim, he refuses, saying that it is “Too muddy” (848). It seems that his lofty ideals are offended by such earthy displays. All he sees are “Flesh, bodies, cannon fodder.” Even the sight of his won naked body makes him shudder “ . . . from a sense of revulsion, incomprehensible even to himself . . .” (848).

In order to keep his mind off Natasha he keeps himself busy with his estates, politics, the military, or his pursuit of Anatole. However, none of these pursuits satisfies him as none are able to live up to his idealized notions, and he is left feeling empty. His vision is always focused upward so that he is unable to appreciate that which life has to offer.

Nevertheless, Prince Andrei is in no hurry to die. Moments before he is injured he thinks “I can’t die, I don’t want to die. I love life . . .” (973). He even gazes earthward for a change, thinking “ . . . this grass, this earth . . .” Yet even as he thinks these thoughts, his mind is drawn back to maintaining his image, his ideal because “ . . .he remembered that people were looking at him” (973).

Because of his idealized principles he is unable to forgive either Anatole or Natasha for what happened. In this rigid life affirming mode, forgiveness is impossible. He makes this clear to Pierre concerning Natasha, and later, concerning the French when he says, “Since they are my enemies they cannot be my friends” (931).

After being wounded, however, Prince Andrei’s outlook changes completely. When he is brought into the field hospital tent where “All he saw about him merged into a single general impression of naked, bleeding, human bodies,” he is confronted with the flesh that has filled him with such horror and revulsion all his life, and he remembers the naked soldiers at the muddy pond. When the initial agony of his injury subsides, he is filled with a profound sense of contentment. “All the best and happiest moments of his life . . . rose to his mind, not as something past, but as a present reality” (977). Prince Andrei has begun to move into the phenomenal world.

When he realizes that the recent amputee who is lying near him is his enemy, Anatole Kuragin, Prince Andrei experiences a moment of non-self induced psychological possibility and “in a flash” he moves from life affirmation to death affirmation. At first the shock of seeing Anatole is too great for him to understand. He knows there is some connection between them, but for the moment it eludes him. Then “All at once a new and unexpected memory from that realm of childhood, purity, and love, presented itself to Prince Andrei . . . now he remembered the connection that existed between himself and this man . . . and a fervid love for this man welled up in his exuberant heart”(978).

Knowing that his wound is fatal, Prince Andrei is finally able to break out of the bonds that have imprisoned him as he realizes “Compassion, love for our brothers, for those who love us, and for those who hate us, love for our enemies . . . that is [what] . . . I did not understand; that is what made me loathe to relinquish my life; that is what remained for me had I lived. But now it is too late” (978). Only by being faced with the reality of death, of flesh both his and others’, has he been able to put aside his lofty ideals and begin to live in the moment. “Yes,” he thinks, “a new happiness was revealed to me-a happiness which is man’s inalienable right” (1101).

Suddenly Prince Andrei understands love and forgiveness. As he lies moving in and out of delirium, he thinks, “I saw my enemy and yet I loved him . . . an enemy can only be loved with divine love. And that is why I knew such joy when I felt that I loved that man” (1102). His thoughts turn to Natasha and how he has hated her. Just as he wishes to see her again in order to make amends, she appears. She asks his forgiveness and, repudiating the choice of either forgiving or not forgiving, he says, “Forgive what?” (1103).

Later, when his sister Princess Maria comes to see him, Prince Andrei has moved deeper into death affirmation. Seeing how sad she is concerning his condition, he thinks of quoting a choice-repudiating passage from the bible, “The fowls of the air sow not, nor do they reap, yet your heavenly Father feedeth them,” but he realizes that there is no point as the living will not understand (1171).

As death approaches he repudiates life more and more until “He was conscious of an alienation from everything earthly, and of a strange and joyous lightness of being. Without anxiety or impatience he awaited what was to come” (1172). No longer fearing death he reflects on his new understanding of divine love and how it helps him to accept death, “ . . . the more imbued he became with this principle of love, the more he renounced life and the more completely he destroyed that dreadful barrier which, in the absence of love, stands between life and death” (1173). The only thing that stands between him and death is his rekindled love for Natasha, but of this too, he is able to let go as he thinks, “Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the eternal and universal source” (1175).

Finally Prince Andrei dreams of struggling against death. It is a struggle in which he can only fail, and when he does, and he dies in the dream, he wakes to the realization that “ . . . death is an awakening!” (1176). He is finally able to let go completely and give himself up to death.

Throughout the early part of the novel Prince Andrei is a man who is locked into a mode of life that is governed by his lofty ideals. Because he has impossibly high standards for the world he envisions, he is invariable disappointed and looks on the events of his life with disillusionment. Earthly things, human things, mud, flesh, all fill him with revulsion. It is not until he is forced to face death and the reality of his own flesh and blood that he is able to transcend the confines of his former life. With the sudden understanding of divine love, he finds the ability to forgive the world for the wrongs he has imagined himself to have suffered. Finally, by repudiating choice (whether to forgive or not to forgive, whether to struggle against death or to embrace it) and renouncing life, he finds himself, and is able to die content with the feeling that all is well. “And his soul was suddenly suffused with light, and the veil concealing the unknown was lifted from before his soul’s vision. He felt as if powers that until then had been confined within him were liberated, and from then on that strange lightness did not leave him again” (1176).

Monday, January 15, 2007

History and Other Connections: Waterland, Solitude, and Tess

History and Other Connections: Waterland, Solitude, and Tess

“So I began to demand of history an Explanation. Only to uncover in this dedicated search more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with; only to conclude forty years later - notwithstanding a devotion to the usefulness, to the educative power of my chosen discipline - that history is a yarn. And can I deny that what I wanted all along was not some golden nugget that history would at last yield up, but History itself: the Grand Narrative, the filler of vacuums, the dispeller of fears of the dark?” (Waterland, 62).

Graham Swift’s Waterland is a novel that is as much about the idea of history as it is about the characters that populate it. Tom Crick, being a history teacher, is naturally concerned with the subject, but as the passage indicates, he has come to realize that rather than being a quantifiable, explainable and explanation-bearing medium, history is actually what humans create in order to fill empty moments and to ward off fear and even madness. And yet, somehow history can explain things, if only obliquely, and what ends up getting explained may not be that for which an explanation was sought.

Crick is first exposed to the idea of history as a story when he is a small child. His mother is an avid story teller, and the stories she tells help to assuage his childhood fears. It is not until much later that he finds out that his mother may have had serious fears of her own, and her story telling ability may have sprung from these fears as a defensive mechanism. He also finds out, through the study of his family’s history, that his father learned to tell stories from his mother. Before they were married, apparently, she helped to cure his shell-shock (a kind of madness) by telling him stories when he was in the asylum. In other words, she drove away his fears with narrative.

This idea of history as a “filler of vacuums” seems to be related to the novel’s setting in the Fens. In a land as flat and empty as the Fens, people needed something to take their minds off all that nothingness. It was so with the Cricks, and not being “idea people” like the Atkinsons, they told stories.

It is only when Tom’s wife finally completely disassociates herself from her own past, her inability to have children, that she slips into the world of delusion. On the other hand, when Dick Crick is confronted with his history, he self destructs. History, seemingly, can be a destructive as well as a constructive force. This opposition can also be seen in the reaction of Price and the other members of the Holocaust Club to the elimination of history from the curriculum. Though they seem to be opposed to the subject when it is being presented to them, they rally in its defense when it faces cuts. The way they rally to its defense is particularly telling: they repeatedly chant “FEAR.” So to them the only thing more fearful than history itself is the lack of it.

The narrator also gives us insight into his own motives in telling this story when he offers his definition of man as “the story-telling animal.” The purpose of his narrative seems to be to seek some meaning in the mess his life has become. Although it is quite possible, and even probable, that there is no real reason for what has happened to him, to Freddie Parr, to Dick, or to his wife (at least no more reason than for what happens to anyone else), he persists in looking back over the events of his past in search of answers. As he says, “Wherever he [man] goes he wants to leave behind not a chaotic wake, not an empty space, but the comforting marker buoys and trail-signs of stories. . . . As long as there’s a story, it’s all right” (63). In order to keep the madness that seems to surround him - his wife’s, the world’s, history’s - from infecting him, he tells stories. In searching for some kind of sense in the events of the past, he holds on to his own sense.

In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, history serves a somewhat different purpose. It is indirectly because of her family’s former grandeur that Tess comes to a bad end. In this way history takes on a more negative connotation than it has in Waterland. Rather than being a balm to the sensibilities as Tom Crick posits it to be (albeit in the right context: as a story), it is something that comes back to haunt one.

The two novels do share a common motif in that they both trace the history of a family in a state of decline. Both the Atkinsons (the Cricks never did have much more than their phlegm) and the D’Urbervilles go through a degenerative period, moving from positions of wealth and power to almost complete obscurity, and even possible extinction. In this way both families are similar to the Buendias of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Waterland and One Hundred Years of Solitude share something that is hard to describe. Tom Crick may say it best in these words when he describes how he found that history held “more mysteries, more fantasticalities, more wonders and grounds for astonishment than I started with” (63). Certainly each novel contains bizarre occurrences, twists of fate, and corrupted blood lines, among other social non-conformities that their leading families practice.

All three novels share the idea of the circularity of time. Several times Ursula in Solitude refers to how events seem to be repeating themselves. In Waterland, the circularity seems to be attached less to humans and more to eels. In Tess, the circularity is reflected in the reversal of fortune of the D’Urbervilles, and by the continuous relocation of the “work folk.” The circularity in Tess seems to be in a downward spiral that is destined to hit bottom at some point with the extinction of the D’Urberville line and the disappearance of a class of folk in the wake of the industrial revolution. In contrast, the circularity in Waterland seems to be of a directionless type. It moves neither up nor down, but always maintains an equilibrium, not unlike the Fens themselves with their constant dredging and siltation and flooding and channel clearing. In Solitude the circularity seems to be related to the Buendias’ tendency to be obsessive. The same types that occur in the family (usually of the same name) usually exhibit the same behaviors. Thus the Aurelianos tend to be introverted until they decide to enter the world in a dramatic way, while the Jose Arcadios are self-indulgent (and self-destructive) extroverts.

Incest is another motif that appears in all three novels. In Waterland it occurs between Tom’s mother and her father. In Solitude it occurs in a couple of configurations. In Tess the incest only occurs in name, as Alec D’Urberville is only related to Tess in that his family bought the rights to her ancestral name. As different as the configurations are, it is interesting that they all bear some kind of blighted fruit. In one case it is Dick Crick, in another it is a child with the tail of a pig, and in another it is a child that dies in its infancy.

In conclusion, it is difficult to imagine three novels that deliver a more diverse experience for the reader. In tone, point of view, and effect they are very different, and yet at the same time they present and deal with similar issues. Each presents the reader with a unique view of the events of the past and how they lead up to and influence the present. As Tom Crick says, “ . . . only animals live in the Here and Now” (62) while the characters in each of these novels lives in and derives meaning, good or bad, from the events of the past.