Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Black and White In Johnson's Novel

          Reading James Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man for the first time really struck as me as being so laid back and informal that I didn’t really expect anything dramatic to happen like the gunshot in the “Club”; not to mention the protagonist’s ostracism when being asked to sit and “rise with the others”—it hadn’t even occurred to me then that the main character was black! Needless to say I had to reconstruct everything I’d read up to that point…
          For me one of the most intriguing facets of Johnson’s novel is that never once is any character given a proper name, and while at first it can be less engaging to read, the idea behind only giving nicknames allows for the reader to focus on something more salient: the idea that the white man’s perspective and way of life can be just as convoluted and pressuring as the black man’s own. Growing up as a child the main character acts as if he is white—even though it becomes clear this is false via the school staff separating him from the other white children— and yet he struggles with issues of trying to pass through life as a respectable boy: “I shall never forget the bewilderment, the pain, the heart-sickness, of that first day at school. I seemed to be the only stranger in the place” (Chp1, Johnson). Regardless of whether you’re white black, or blue, you’re still going to have to face the same problems that every person encounters growing up; and I think that theme, that everyone goes through life trying to overcome the same or similar situations, is what Johnson is trying to impress upon his readers: he doesn’t want them to fixate on a specific character or their behavior, so he simply cuts out their names and pastes in a quirky pet name.
Having done that, the reader’s mind floats past the people in the novel and instead focuses on the more detailed objects: such as the main character having a smart and loving African American mother while also having a wealthy and caring (so it seems up to this point) white American father. I think Johnson is trying to blend, perhaps even blur, the ideas of what it means to live life as a black or white American during the early twentieth century. Once that’s completed, the idea that someone’s skin color being different affects how they think/act will be seen as mute, and instead the ideology that every human being faces the same trials will become the salient virtue whenever someone brings up the race question. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Miss Bart in the Past and the Present

          After watching the recent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth I’m interested in the comparison between the two. For the most part the only difference is with the verbally intense scenes, i.e. Selden and Gus, where Lily is kissed by the men; I think this was simply added to make the movie more enjoyable for a twenty-first century audience, but if that’s so it also means a sad truth: nowadays people have no desire for the intellectual, meaningful, and much slower part of the human experience. This happens to be a major part the psychological realm as well because as technology increases people seem to become more and more attuned to the fastest route to understanding and getting what they want; although, it’s said that many TV watchers are better at multi-tasking, and even more so, that internet users are typically better at sifting out useful information in a heap of random details. So the question is: are we better off interacting and constructing our view of the world in such quickly created conjectures? It’s hard to say…
          On the one hand a person can’t deny the kind of intimacy reading the thoughts a joyful, hurt, discouraged, or excited protagonist offers; you don’t get the same kind of personal interaction with a film because the information coming at you is already processed in clearly defined images (one would hope). In doing so the viewer is deprived of the action of having to interact with the text, whereas a reader can compute the emotion on a much more detailed and specific level. However, films may be an advantage to some who are more akin to visual details: someone who has a high need for affect (an emotional person) may react much stronger to a sad scene in movie because all of the energy typically used for processing words and the negative emotion are ignored, and the viewer instead is forced to take in the sad feeling with every ounce of attention. In light of that, the question may seem farcical—that really neither is better than the other, just different—but I should propose that that isn’t case: I believe a textual copy is a much more valuable piece of information to obtain and process simply because by reading a person is forced to think about what is being presented. And this requirement of thoughtfully processing a book makes it, I think, a much more enriching experience; not to say a film can’t be as rewarding (there are plenty of notable aspects to a movie like beautiful music that you don’t get in reading a book). In that case I would almost prefer a novel with such intrinsic value like The House of Mirth not to be transcribed into a film: or at the very least, if it must be made into film that the movie do its source enough justice to cause the audience to go out and read the book for themselves. 

Picture Source: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_fKuQO5RXW_0/TMtq6Rbe41I/AAAAAAAAAIQ/fSnvSfUVmMY/s1600/The-House-of-Mirth-286426.jpg

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Great Writing Equals Popularity... Right...?

          Well we talked about novels that are either popular, classical, not popular, or a combination of these types. Personally I am surprised that so many people considered Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes to be classical and popular because in the past I haven’t met many readers of the genre. Same goes for stuff like LOTR or Chronicles of Narnia: I always thought people had heard of the books—or at least seen one of the movies—but never actually taken the time to read the text; which I’ll admit I haven’t exactly read LOTR because the Hobbit is dense and it’s only a children’s book. Nevertheless, perhaps when I’ve got several hours open for a month or two I’ll commit to reading the first novel. As for work like Narnia or Sherlock Holmes, I am always surprised to learn that people are avid readers of both books, but have never heard of an author like oh, I don’t know, Robert Louis Stevenson (the Scottish author of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or perhaps the better known Treasure Island). It is interesting because while the average person, in my experience, has little to no knowledge of such works, they happen to know Doyle’s craftsmanship; who believe it or not, conveniently is influenced by Stevenson. Now why is that? Why are two perfectly good authors not represented equally throughout literature and other media like the film industry?
Perhaps it has something to do with race.
Just as a quick disclaimer: I honestly haven’t done any serious researcher into the subject, but I do have a vague idea of why Doyle became famous and Stevenson didn’t. First off, Doyle lucked out and happened to have an agent that enabled him to make money off stories like Sherlock Holmes. In contrast, Stevenson had no such support, and in addition to that, he was of a minority group in the United Kingdom: he was Scottish. The real irony though is that while Doyle copies a lot of Stevenson’s suspenseful writing style, Stevenson’s stories like Arabian Nights fails to garner the same kind of widespread popularity even though recently critics suggest that Stevenson is the better writer of the two! The reason I point this out is simple: work that becomes popular—unfortunately—seems to rely more on the social appetite and appreciation of the author whose stories are being praised. And for me this poses a significant issue because popular writing shouldn’t be a reflection of an audience with bad taste, but should instead reflect a critical portrait of the values that the society holds dearest. That’s what I believe makes a book stand the test of time: if it can evoke emotions like anger, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, or happiness, then it will forever be labeled a classic because it elicits the emotions we experience every day. I can only pray this seemingly decadent and stagnant stage of writing is quickly washed away by inspiring work…

Picture Source: http://farm9.static.flickr.com/8044/8106166307_9cee36cc94.jpg

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lily's Desire of Discovery

          A common, and perhaps well-hidden, theme throughout The House of Mirth is that while Lily is so apt to analyze everyone around her, deep down, as revealed by characters like Lawrence Selden, Miss Bart wishes to be inspected and understood with the same precision and accuracy she bestows upon the individuals under her observation: “She had never heard him speak with such affirmation. His habitual touch was that of the eclectic who lightly turns over and compares; and she was moved by this sudden glimpse into the laboratory where his faiths were formed” (Wharton, 62). At this point Lily begins to chip away at the perhaps reserved intelligence and perceptiveness of Selden, who, in his typically lackadaisical manner, goes on to describe an interesting philosophy of free-will and optimistic self-determinism the lawyer calls the “republic of the spirit”, aka the bachelor’s definition of success; as opposed to Lily’s predictable and perhaps unusually na├»ve explanation that success is: “to get as much as one can out of life” (Wharton, 60). Such a narrow-minded response seems to justify Selden’s cynicism toward Lily’s behavior and need for affluence. At the same time though, the answer given may be more evident of the social conditioning Miss Bart has received and less reflective of her true nature, which Selden suspects to be wholly artificial and self-serving; however, considering how little we truly know of Lily added with the short allowance of time we’ve had to judge her motives and actions, I think it would be unfair to sell her out as simply “manipulative”.
          Wind the clock backward during the duo’s conversation and a person sees a curious moment of genuine shame felt by Miss Bart about herself that leads one to suspect her desire for wealth is simply an enumerated value: that in fact under the surface of her seemingly selfish visage lies a more innocent and romantic sense of ideals. By setting off her more important priorities (or at least the professed ones), Lily, whether or not she is aware, commits the slip of revealing a more tender side, a side perhaps more like Selden then either parties realize. Take for example her sudden concern at being categorized as shallow or ignoble by her male friend: “You think me horribly sordid, don’t you? But perhaps it’s rather that I never had any choice. There was no one, I mean, to tell me about the republic of the spirit” (Wharton, 60). In quickly saving face for her unwonted show of weakness by giving excuses, Lily inadvertently sentences herself to being guilty of actually caring about what Selden thinks of her; why else bother trying to justify her motive to marry a wealthy man? The question then remains: if Selden is aware but hiding his knowledge of Lily’s soft spot for him, how will he react later throughout the novel? I think it won’t be long before this inquiry is answered; honestly my hunch is that the growing intimacy between the two will become the ultimate conflict of Edith Wharton’s book. 

Picture Source: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-WjbHUh4o1b0/UABzDfbtieI/AAAAAAAAAAU/Njv_sOP1MTA/s1600/houseofmirth.jpg

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Angry For Two, Please

            In the beginning of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, a young bachelor lives out his life quietly and contently as an uneducated dentist. Throughout the most of the first quarter of the book a docile, and overall mute, McTeague ends up falling in love with a woman named Trina, who doesn’t love the monstrous man until he embraces her, and that’s when it’s decided the couple will get married. And at first, the couple is happy: “There she was, his little woman… her adorable little chin thrust upward with that familiar movement of innocence and confidence” (Norris, 98). Both McTeague and Trina find themselves increasingly attached, so much so that they tell themselves it would be hard to imagine being with anyone else. I believe Norris sets up this romantic scene in order to detour the audience away from what is down the road for each person. It keeps the readers immersed in the seemingly ordinary and natural world the newly wedded couple exists in, and yet later this seemingly impenetrable love dies away and anger, with the help of greed, fills in the gap for both spouses that once held their eternal appreciation for one another.
          After being married for a year, Trina becomes frustrated by her rash decision to marry McTeague. She soon rationalizes her way out the conflict by giving up what little self-determinism is left and professes to being entirely McTeague’s:  “it was only AFTER her marriage with the dentist that she really begun to love him… She loved him because had given herself… unreservedly; had merged her individuality into his… she belonged to him forever” (Norris, 112). This sudden switch of mentality into a submissive demeanor, one so salient that Trina literally “merges her individuality” and no longer cares how McTeague acts, but instead only knows she will never abandon him I think Norris uses this scene to demonstrate the slow but sure shift of the couple’s relationship. Even more so, it seems to relate to what was going on between men and women during the early twentieth century: men were, as they frequently still are today, considered to be the “bread-winners” of the household; women simply existed as a sort of pleasurable object that, if well-bred and capable enough, should be able to meet any and every desire thrust upon her by the husband. Fast forward to where McTeague loses his job as a dentist and it’s obvious where the marriage is head: complete erosion.
          Zooming near the end of chapter nineteen the audience witnesses the abrupt disappearance and reappearance of McTeague, who, before taking a short sojourn, steals all of Trina’s hidden savings. Her uncontrollable ire boils hotter than ever as the frail wife finds her money stolen: “I could have forgiven him if he had only gone way and left me my money… I could have forgiven even THIS’—she looked at the stumps… But now… now—I’ll—never—forgive—him—as-long—as—I—live” (Norris, 214). Trina no longer feels any love toward her brutishly stupid husband who has taken from her what she values most, what has planted itself and grow into an indomitable force like her affection for McTeague used to be, and vows to never help the asinine giant ever again (not that she did very much in the first place). As the wife’s rage solidifies into lasting bitterness, McTeague becomes savagely cruel toward his wife, i.e. biting her fingers, pinching her incessantly, and smacking her with a hairbrush.
Circling back to the original wedge between the spouses, consuming greed caused the division between Trina and McTeague that then kicked into motion the angry felt by both; Trina hates her husband for stealing the four hundred dollars and the dentist hates his wife for being an over-the-board miser. True to the pessimistic style of Naturalism, the audience later on reads about the dentist’s raging behavior and his destroying of Trina: “[McTeague] all at once sent his fist into the middle of her face with the suddenness of a relaxed spring… his enormous fists, clenched till the knuckles whitened, raised in the air” (Norris, 224). Finally through dealing with his wife, the inebriated husband finds Trina’s trunk of cash, and picking the canvas sack, goes out into the street, void of any remorse for the death of Trina. I believe that Norris presents these cruel details to his audience because he wants them to realized being angry will only end in death for everyone, or perhaps worse in some aspects, people will their lives feeling bitterness toward another person because of a disagreement or conflict that should have been dealt with in a more healthy and productive manner. Even near the beginning Norris seems to hint at this: Marcus Schouler acts as a nasty caricature of what tragedies are soon to befall both Trina and McTeague, and even though the dentist has a chance to make amends he chooses not to which, I believe, seals the unfortunate fate of him and his wife. Needless to say one should probably stray from sequestering negative emotions like angry.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Twain on Society

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, remains at the height of American literature because of his creative manner that he used to criticize the culture around him in a subtle, yet sometimes vicious manner; and of course, Pudd’nhead Wilson shines brightly as one of his best works. “Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden” (Twain, 5). A perhaps notorious line from the main protagonist’s calendar of witty sayings humorously demonstrates the essence in which Twain sees many Americans behaving. In doing so he is gently prodding the reader to ponder how such a seemingly obvious phrase alludes to in everyday life. I believe the dichotomous author is commenting that the only reason the average person engages in unlawful or taboo actions is simply because they are told not to. If left alone, perhaps, an individ-ual might not venture or even notice what they have yet to interfere with. The use of an ancient figure from a well-known source (Adam) causes many persons to stop and ruminate also. Regardless, there is a great deal of these unwonted quotes at the beginning of each chapter, but the next one in particular seems to strike a note of considerable interest to what the writer thinks of race.
Something truly vital to the composition of Pudd’nhead Wilson is the idea that our environment, and ourselves as well, shapes who and what we eventually become. “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education” (Twain, 22). It’s intriguing how Clemens compares a sweet fruit to a coarse seed and then goes on to use cabbage as a lesser form of vegetable. However, the choice of cabbage is, I think, well plucked because it denotes a rugged sense of poverty and uncouth manual labor. The cauliflower on the other hand is a sophisticated and refined vegetable that few bother to understand and appreciate for its unusual taste. That said, I believe this metaphor elucidates the unfair and sometime cruel way that slaves, and individuals believed to black, were treated like stupid animals just because of their skin color. Along those lines a person should then realize that everyone is equally valuable and should be given a chance to succeed as far his neighbor. This I believe is the over-arching theme of Twain’s story.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Timeless Tragedy

          The avoidable tragedy of Captain Ahab’s ships is foreshadowed throughout most of Melville’s novel Moby-Dick. After spending several months hunting down a supposedly antagonizing Sperm whale the Pequod stumbles upon the White Whale at last: “the whale was now seen some mile or so ahead, at every roll of the sea revealing his high sparkling hump, and regularly jetting his silent spout into the air” (Melville, 595). This is merely the beginning of a three day conquest across frothing waters. I believe this scene acts a subtle omen of the tragedy to come because it involves an exciting chase that ends with everyone but Ishmael dying. Oddly enough, a few lines down Ahab claims that he spotted the alabaster leviathan first and therefore gets the golden doubloon: “Not the same instant; not the same—no the doubloon is mine, Fate reserved the doubloon for me. I only; none of ye could have raised the White Whale first” (Melville, 595). I believe that by purloining Tashtego of what seems to be rightly his emulates a heavy sort of tragedy because Ahab’s delusional obsession to find Moby-Dick has whittled away the capacity for rationality and fairness. He no longer cares about the safety of his worn-out sailors, and as result Fate veils him along with the crew in a blanket of infinite sleep. However, Ahab isn’t the first to have been deranged enough to sacrifice innocent kinsmen.
          In Euripides’ Medea a betrayed mother and wife seeks to destroy her husband and the royal woman he wishes to wedlock. She soon devises a plan to burn the princess of Corinth alive via poisoned clothing, but after doing so realizes there is no place for her two boys in the country as refugees; she then decides to murder them: “They must die and since they must I, who brought them into the world, will kill them” (Euripides, 30). The disturbing passage reflects a character lost in her eddying emotions, and as result has lost all sense of logical thinking. In the end Medea butchers the children with a sword but not before she can escape unnoticed by her husband Jason. The final dispute between them reveals just how indifferent Medea has become, and in this way I believe Euripides and Melville hit on a similar note. A person who loses himself or herself in rage turns into a mindless machine capable of a tragedy that should have been prevented, and instead creates a maniac chaos in which the innocent suffer ineffably. 

Picture Source: http://www.google.com/imgres?um=1&hl=en&biw=1366&bih=667&tbm=isch&tbnid=_MINCmOiJc22pM:&imgrefurl=http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/euripides/tp/051910EuripidesBacchaeStudyQuestions.htm&docid=kFzMIw7VLZN-OM&imgurl=http://0.tqn.com/d/ancienthistory/1/0/n/x/2/MedeaMurdersChild.jpg&w=380&h=598&ei=PUx3UPHLEuaIiAKJyIG4Dg&zoom=1&iact=rc&dur=428&sig=116158649283764553725&page=1&tbnh=121&tbnw=77&start=0&ndsp=28&ved=1t:429,r:2,s:0,i:83&tx=23&ty=74 
Works Cited: Euripides, and C. A. E. Medea. N.p.: n.p., 431 BC. Print.