The Function of Dream in A Midsummer’s Night Dream

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BLOG by Josette Cosetta

Undoubtedly one of his most well-known comedies, the very title of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream[1] tempts viewers to dismiss the production as mere fabrication. This option is offered explicitly in the final act of the play in which Puck recommends to the audience that if the actors have offended them, they should consider the production no more real than a dream. In the play, the phenomenon of dream bridges the divide between the real and spirit worlds and functions to effect character transformation. Having undergone a metamorphosis of personality and opinion, the characters are able to depart the dream world and return to the city where these changes aid in securing their joyful marriages.

At the play’s opening the strictly lawful city of Athens, historically comparable to Shakespeare’s 17th century rule of law, hinders reasonable perception with nearly all characters experiencing obstructed vision. Almost everyone sees narrowly, through an equally limiting and limited group of assumptions about status, beauty, and romance. The characters each see separate versions of reality and strongly believe that their version is resoundingly correct. For example, in the very first act Hermia laments that her father should see her preference for a husband through her eyes, but Theseus assures her that she must consider things through Egeus’s more experienced and authoritative point of view.

Chief troublemaker Oberon lures the four lovers away from the rigidly structured society of Athens and into the forest, an obscure paradise where phenomena such as status challenges and sexual complications ensue through the outlet of dream in a positive, therapeutic fashion. The characters leave a strict, severe environment in which they are unable to attain their heart’s desires in favor of a part of nature where social norms do not pertain. Both in nature and dream, they can embrace the illogical to help them enter a curative return to chaos.

  Oberon then compels Puck to instigate ordeals that will help the characters to undergo personal transformation. Through these seemingly improbable ordeals, a status reversal occurs between Helena and Hermia in their intense argument. The women are brought from a high status as potential wives down to a demeaning rank as they bicker in an unladylike fashion; they even come close to socially degrading physical combat.

Status reversal also occurs between Bottom and Titania, for which the status swap is coupled with sexual encounters resulting in an amusing yet meaningful demotion of standing for Titania and a short-lived rise in status for Bottom. The transitory adjustment of status between both pairs of characters serves to impart them with the wisdom of what could have been. This shows them the error of their ways and gives Oberon the peace of mind that they will assume their “natural” pairings now that they are aware of what happens when they fail to do so.

Now that these transformations have taken place and the characters understand the implications of breaking the status quo, the dream ends. The lovers return to their proper mates ready to replace the beneficial chaos that occurred in the forest with the social formality of marriage in Athens. The insights gained in the forest have metamorphosed the romantic desires of the Athenian lovers. They will now be able to obey the laws of their city which, after the transformation of all characters, have been relaxed substantially to the benefit of all. Theseus overbears Egeus’s will and blesses Lysander and Hermia’s formerly prohibited nuptials.

At the beginning of the play in still-strict Athens, the characters react to conscious social pressures by turning to the unconscious to seek transformation. They flee from an oppressive atmosphere to escape from society to nature. They then return to the changed society, completing a cycle that has offered therapeutic transformation to all involved. Helena can reconcile with her true love Demetrius, and Lysander and Hermia are finally afforded their happily-ever-after. These changes would not have been possible without the lovers’ remedial transformation that took place in the forest. Had they not stumbled into the powerful and curative dream world, the lovers would not have ended up in their satisfying romantic couplings in now-reformed Athens.

Puck’s epilogue serves to deliver a final confusion of reality and illusion to the audience. Just as Oberon mended his mischief by sorting out the romantic entanglement of the four lovers, Puck insists in the final act that if audiences dismiss the whimsical nature of the play as no more than a manifestation of the subconscious, “all [will be] mended” and he will “restore amends” to potentially affronted theatergoers. Audiences are left to ponder the meaning of Shakespeare’s emblematic dream with the play’s thought-provoking message concerning the sensation fresh in their heads.

 

[1] Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, ed. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (New York: Modern Library, 2008).

Josette Cosetta (Feb. 2018)

 

 

 

 

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Stories with Heart

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When approaching a potential short story of interest, I often find myself searching for seemingly inconsequential characters, for those who doubt their place in the world and view themselves, and the world, with disinterested apathy. I search for those stories which cast an even darker shadow upon their protagonist; stories of societal or personal unrest which take the character into the realm of psychological disturbance and turmoil, only to leave the reader with a distant feeling of unease as the final pages bring the story to a shuddering halt. I like to see the character perched on the edge of destruction, only to reel back as if in the eleventh hour. It is not this dreary nature, however, that I find enticing. Rather, it is the journey the protagonist embarks on, the constant search for internal and external peace that draws me in. I find that while their lives begin to unwind, and they attempt to piece it back together, very human attributes begin to appear. “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe checks all these boxes off for me. Poe introduces us to a nameless character—we do not know his purpose, we do not know his relationship to the old man with the “Evil Eye,” we know nothing of him except that he is simply nervous. “Very, very dreadfully nervous” to be precise. The man asserts his sanity, creating an ambiguity surrounding the man’s moral and mental character as he plots the old man’s murder outside of his door each night.

Stories like this dwell in that certain gray area that permeates life, entering neither into territories of good or bad, sweet or evil, and perhaps, begin to reveal truths about us, and how, we too, exist neither wholly innocent or guilty. The protagonist kills the vulture-eyed man, not of malice, but rather to liberate himself–and the old man–from that malevolent eye. To the protagonist, murder is an act of deliverance.

I also enjoy a loud protagonist, one who, while unsure of their role in a life unraveling, fight their way upstream, refusing to be trumped with ease. That battle between laying belly up for the antagonists, even if it is themselves, and fighting for who and what they are, separates the ordinary from the spectacular for me. The man in “The Tell-Tale Heart” struggles for his nebulous grip on reality, reasserting his sanity as his paranoia heightens with each invisible whisper of the old man’s still-beating heart that grows into a resounding insistence that he is guilty. My favorite characters find their end bloodied and bruised with busted knuckles and a raw throat, having fought for their existence—whether mentally or physically—until they either expire or succeed. I like to read of characters who live, characters who have experienced the breadth of human emotion, the variance of life. This window into a tumultuous mind that settles itself on actions of violence justified by the superstitions of a madman soon overcome with the guilt of murder draws an image of what it is like to be fully human, which, I suppose, is what I am looking for when I read. I like novels to remind me that humanity is neither perfect nor entirely flawed, but rather, something that perpetuates itself in gray areas. I wish to read about stories and people who extrapolate the complicated nature of life and humanity; I find such stories in the unlikeliest of heroes in the most onerous of places, in those who must fight for what they want, and who persist until their last breaths. The answers in this life are not simple. I do not wish to read of characters who think it so.

 

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My Nobel Fascination

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I know this is somewhat strange, but Nobel Literature Prize acceptance speeches are without a doubt one of my most preferred sources of leisure reading.  I like hearing what the world’s most influential and innovative literary figures have to say when they have the whole planet’s attention.  Unsurprisingly, I hold special fondness for a Nobel speech if I happen to already admire the work of the writer being recognized; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s 1970 acceptance speech remains one of my favorite works of writing to re-read, but my appreciation for his expertly minimalist novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich definitely plays into my affection for his Nobel oration.  This all being said, my second favorite Nobel Prize acceptance speech was penned by an author whose fiction I cannot claim to have overly enjoyed reading: William Faulkner.

Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949, having by that point already published landmark books such as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom!.  His award speech, given in Stockholm in December of 1950, immediately distances itself from his fiction in that it is a mere five paragraphs of precise, poignant discourse.  My primary frustration with Faulkner’s novels, admittedly a total fault on my part and in no way detracting from his genius, remains his insistence on keeping the reader uncomfortable all the time.  His work often features extraordinarily long passages, abrupt and un-signaled changes in narrative perspective, and grotesque characters with loads of psychological baggage, all of which are completely valid and interesting literary devices, but when combined make a reading experience I find more inscrutable than rewarding.  I hope, much in the way that parents want their children to grow up and appreciate eating vegetables, that I will someday turn an intellectual corner with Faulkner and be able to sing the praises of his novels with the genuine respect they assuredly deserve.  Until that day comes, Flannery O’Connor will retain her hold on my Southern gothic affections.

The Nobel speech Faulkner delivered, however, seems intended to accomplish the opposite of his fiction.  Convoluted and disconcerting plots are exchanged for concision and clarity of expression.  He begins by saying, “I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust.”  This opening impresses me every time I read it with its simultaneously sincere humility and pride.  He acknowledges both the grandness of the award in its recognition of his “life’s work,” while also admitting that the “award is only [his] in trust,” in the sense that he is neither the first nor the last writer to have such an influence on the world, and nor should he be.  He knows that the future of literature, and correspondingly the future of society and culture, depend upon those to come: “the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.”  Acceptance speeches understandably can tend towards a backwards-looking talk, one commenting upon what it took for the recipient to make it this far, and how their work has already changed lives for the better.  Notably, Faulkner resists this temptation, instead directing the audience, and the world, to look ahead.

Practically every sentence in Faulkner’s speech could be elaborated on at length, given the impressive depth of insight he achieves in such few words, but the concluding two sentences demand consideration over the rest.  He writes, “It is [the poet’s] privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.  The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”  If there exists a better two-sentence summation of how literature and the human experience are uniquely bound together in a mutually enriching relationship, I have yet to read it.  Writers, as Faulkner eloquently points out, have the “privilege” of speaking to the world and its myriad of beauties, complexities, struggles, and passions.  Where many see labor or profit, Faulkner finds the potential for inspiration and fulfillment.  The next time that you have five free minutes, I encourage you to read Faulkner’s speech in its entirety.  While it may not lead to a strangely fervent appreciation for the Nobel Prize speech as an art form, as the one I admittedly bear, its powerful message is well worth such a small portion of your time.

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The Motherland That Was Never Mine

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The title of this blog post was meant to go with a completely different concept. Originally, I planned to write about how I’ve never been to my parents’ native Haiti in person—only through literature. I’ve imagined stepping onto the tarmac of the tiny Cap-Haïtien airport a million times; I’ve written about the beaches and the mountains as though the images in my head are from my own memories and not my mother’s photo album. I clung to every word in Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and The Dew Breaker, half wishing that the words and experiences of a Haitian native might rub off on a first-gen Haitian American who has always felt like she was missing something.

That was the original outline—until a few days ago.

Until it was announced that the Trump Administration would retract the temporary protection that was awarded to roughly 59,000 Haitians who sought refuge from the 2010 earthquake.

Until I remembered that while I’ve always longed to finally breathe the salty air of the Cap-Haïtien coast and walk the streets on which my parents were raised, my visit to my parents’ hometown would be just that: a visit. For some, a flight back to Haiti would be forced exile, wrought with uncertainty and danger.

The estimated number of Haitians beneficiaries of Temporary Protected Status in the United States has most likely surpassed “59,000” since the disaster. For the country’s returning citizens, stepping onto that same Cap-Haïtien tarmac would be a return to square one. For the ones who may have grown up in the United States—whether they’re Haitian citizens who came here as children, or American citizens born to Haitian immigrants— the “return” to their parents’ country might be even more daunting than merely starting over; the only ‘home’ they have ever known might be the same country that’s flushing them out.

 

They would be returning to a motherland that was never theirs.

 

It doesn’t take long for my American friends, classmates, and teachers to learn that I’m Haitian-American. I’m proud of my heritage, I like talking about the things I’ve learned but have not yet experienced, and I’m always willing to answer questions about cultural differences and Haitian customs. However, because several people have assumed that I was born in Haiti, they are surprised to learn that I have never been there. Then comes the dreaded, inevitable question: Have you ever thought of going back home?

I always know it’s coming; I can see it forming letter by letter, word by word. I smile, sidestep, shrug it off.  I’m not offended; I’m not allowed to be. Still, it has the strange, quick sting of a needle that pops something in my mind and sends it reeling.

Home? I am home. This country has always been my home. Haiti was never mine.

Remember, I have privilege in citizenship. I was raised here, but I was also born here. Imagine how jarring that question must be to DACA or TPA recipients whose home may not be in their country of birth. Imagine how it must feel for someone else to tell you where your home must be.

My experiences are in no way comparable to theirs. I don’t know the documentation statuses of the state-side Haitian friends and relatives that I know of, let alone that of those I have yet to meet. I don’t know the exact statuses of the thousands of immigrants, Haitian or otherwise, who came to this country by way of Temporary Protection. I can only imagine what they must be going though. I am beyond blessed to have been born to immigrants who are now also American citizens. My parents earned their citizenship back when it was extremely difficult, not near-impossible. For millions of immigrants and refugees, the hope to be legal, secure, and visible in this country died with the promise of a new president. Each reversal to vital immigration laws is a kick to the carcass, another nail in the coffin.

I can’t speak for any of them, but I can empathize, advocate, protest. Why?

Because although I am not directly threatened by this change in legislation, it still affects me. Because this country as we know it would not exist without the communities, cultures, and contributions of its immigrants, their forced exile would affect all of us.

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Can you be nostalgic for a time in which you did not live?  

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Those that reply “no” simply haven’t read or seen convincing enough imagery. Because I certainly am nostalgic. I’m nostalgic for a time, a place, and an ideal that I’ve never personally experienced: the women’s college.

It’s a concept that used to sit squarely associated with upper-class sophistication. Families packed their children off to these institutions – Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke – with some of the family jewelry, and perhaps a horse, to study Literature and Art History and maybe find a husband to boot. Many of these schools existed in a kind of domestic partnership with near by all-male schools: Wellesley to Harvard, Vassar to Yale, and so on. Because of the close physical proximity and the tendency of both schools to attract the same “types” of student, many of their alums ended up married.

My grandmother attended Agnes Scott in the 50’s. A small smile appears on her face when she recalls the orchestrated courtship between students. The boys from the men’s college nearby would call her dormitory’s phone, the girls would line up and down the hallway and wait their turn to receive the phone and be asked to some dance or soiree. The image makes me smile as well. Despite my constant monologues on feminism and equality (just ask my housemates), I still find that a part of me yearns to know what it was actually like in those feminine institutions during the mid-20th century, all coifed curls and 10 PM curfews.

These schools, in their heyday, boomed. The reason? The elite higher education institutions of the day prohibited admission of the gentler sex, necessitating the creation of separate universities where lucky daughters would earn their degrees. By 1927, a coalition of prestigious women’s schools emerged, the “Seven Sisters” of Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Mount Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Radcliffe, and Barnard. These colleges were considered the feminine counterpart to their all-male colleagues, the Ivy League. If anyone has seen the 2003 film staring Julia Roberts, Mona Lisa Smile, you’ll get the feeling: a kind of female-version-of-Dead’s Poet Society, an Amazonian utopia of feminine intelligence. They are also the alma maters of some illustrious literary alums: Margaret Atwood (writer, Radcliffe), Elizabeth Bishop (poet, Vassar), Emily Dickinson (poet, Mount Holyoke), Ursula Le Guin (writer, Radcliffe), Sylvia Plath (poet, Smith), Gertrude Stein (critic and writer, Radcliffe), and more.

But, despite this legacy of badass (excuse my French) women, the “women’s college” itself is a dying breed. In the 1960’s, there were 244 single-sex institutions of higher education in the U.S. Now there are 44. It’s an inevitable, but nonetheless unhappy, phenomena. Kids don’t want to go to college without the opposite gender anymore.

On one hand, I understand this: I did not choose (or even really consider) a women’s college for myself. But on the other, I don’t: I do have experience in an all-female learning environment, and it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I had the great good fortune to receive my secondary education at a private, all-girls school in the south. It was exactly like you would imagine it to be. Uniforms were crisp plaid and saddle oxfords, physical education courses included required lessons in dance and poise, and the favored afternoon treat of “tea cakes,” frothy confections consisting of crumbly bases piled high with white glaze and baked fresh in-house. Everything was white and soft and distinctly feminine. I still recall the heady scent of the blooming magnolia trees in spring, covering the campus like a blanket. When I recount fond memories of my experiences at an all-girls’ school, many people who don’t understand the allure balk: “but it’s crucial to be educated alongside boys at that age, you’ll be handicapped for life not knowing how to interact with men!” As if the absence of male genitalia in my high school classrooms would somehow render the male sex a mystery to me for life. It was truly a treasured time in my life. Who wouldn’t want to experience that kind of closely caring community?

The answer is girls and boys both, apparently. To flip the gender coin, today in the U.S. only four non-religious all-male schools remain, including one just a stone’s throw away two hours southeast in Hamden-Sydney. This university itself was once a bastion of masculinity, admitting only men until 1985, when fiscal necessity trumped the protests of reluctant alums. Those holdouts were evidently placated with a compromise: while the gentler sex would be admitted, the ratio of male-female students would never creep above 51-49: the male would always hold the majority. I like to tuck this little fact away to remind myself with when I feel W&L is getting too progressive (insert sarcasm here). Despite that tidbit, we have come a long way since the 80’s: now, the school is affectionately referred to by some as “Whiskey & Libido” University – a nickname that is, truthfully, appropriate.

So, W&L went the co-ed route, and barely any masculine fortresses of higher education remain impervious to feminine intrusion. Likewise, one of the few remaining women’s colleges, Sweet Briar here in Virginia, went belly-up in May 2015, 114 years after the institution’s inception. In old photos, the women of Sweet Briar all look so much older than I feel now. I mean, those women were undeniably women when I, at age 22, still find it difficult to use that word when referring to myself or my peers without discomfort. This, I think, is the crux of why my generation has killed off the single-sex institutions of our grandparents’. They – and their sepia-colored scholars – are simply too old for us. We have outgrown them by slowing the process of “growing up.” And while I’m quite happy where I am, the nostalgia still comes, for a time and place and an ideal where I might be a little less millennial, and a little more adult.

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Bated Breath, Fingers Crossed

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Registration season is once again upon us at Washington and Lee.

As a senior, this latest round of signing up for winter-term courses has never gone more smoothly. As a French major who has somehow managed to fulfill all of her degree requirements with time to spare, I’ve actually been able to look into classes that I could take for fun—while I write a 50-page honors thesis in French, that is. As a creative writing minor who is one category away from completion of the track, I have first pick among many interesting English classes that would satisfy this final requirement. But as a black woman at a predominantly white institution, and a student who also frequents departments where both of these minority identities are even more noticeable, registration is difficult. It’s a constant reminder that for many courses, the ‘classic’ topics seem to take priority over more their more ‘diverse’ counterparts—even when a class could potentially be taught both ways.

For example, I’d taken enough English classes that I considered picking it up as a major during my sophomore year. I was excited to try my hand at comparative literature  Since there is so much potential to discuss and examine minority works throughout the Americas, I aimed to complement French literature with American literature. The department offers several American Lit classes every semester, so my hopes were high every time registration came around. However, based on the descriptions that I saw, it always seemed that there would not be much diversity of subject matter. Sadly, this year was no different.

Consider this excerpt of a description for an upcoming class on the American Short Story:

“This course is a study of the evolution of the short story in America from its roots, both domestic (Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Melville) and international (Gogol, Chekhov, Maupassant), tracing the main branches of its development in the 20th century…we focus our attention on the work of two American masters of the form…, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. We examine how they were influenced by their predecessors and by each other and how each helped to shape the genre.”

To be fair, I had a slightly different definition of the term “American” when I first happened upon this course title in the catalog; I initially thought it would include works from all of the Americas. It is also a bit odd to see a list of mostly Northern writers and to still label the topic as “American.” I realize that this might be a specialty topic chosen by the professor, hence the focus on Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

I was definitely taken aback by the selection of writers that are actually listed in the description. Why? Because none of the aforementioned writers are female, people of color, or both—yet both minority groups were vital to the establishment and development of the American short story in the 20th century. I can only wonder if other key writers, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Ralph Ellison, Eudora Welty, Toni Bambara, or Ernest Gaines, might still be discussed.

I know that a small blurb does not outline an entire course, but this recurring registration issue highlights a bigger problem. First-years and non-English majors may not be familiar with a lot of popular writers, so they can’t exactly anticipate the ones a professor might teach. For them, a course description like this one is probably all of the information they will get, unless they formally request a syllabus.

But if a woman, a person of color, or a woman of color happens to be considering this particular American Literature course, then a description that essentially credits the creation and mastery of the American short story to Northern and European white men is problematic.

Personally, I was left to wonder if I would have to sacrifice my own diverse interests yet again. Then I started obsessing over potential ways to “fix” my experience in a course in which I wasn’t even enrolled:

 “That can’t be all of the writers we would study, right?”

“Okay, but focusing on Hemingway means the professor would have to mention Gertrude Stein, so technically a woman writer is still in the curriculum. Right?”

“Would it be inappropriate for me to request a lesson or two on a writer of color?”

I know it seems silly that so much uncertainty could stem from a few lines in the course description, but those few lines were enough. This is only one blip in the hunt for curricular diversity that I (and students like me) often experience. I’ve found that I have to hope for diverse subject matter, and then I try to justify the lack thereof if it’s not delivered. I shouldn’t have to go into a class with my fingers crossed.

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Morsel: Spark

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I don’t know anyone named Muriel, but I want to.  My primary association with the name is from reading Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jane Brodie, then seeing the film, made marvelous by the young Maggie Smith.  I’m also aware of a Tom Waits song with the name as title, a brand of cigar and a Salinger character who is first paramour, then wife to Seymour Glass, but recently someone gave me a quotation from the Scottish writer Spark that drove me to a little light research.  Among my most satisfying discoveries were that Muriel is, in angelology circles, the “patron” angel of June and that it’s also a variant on Mary.  But the real treasure is in its history going back to early Welsh: muir – sea + geal – bright.  So Muriel is sea-bright, or perhaps shining or sparkling.

So: Muriel Spark is Sparkling Spark, which brings me back to the quotation, which many seem to have heard but without knowing the source.  (Will Twitter’s Spark scholars bring the source out of the shadows?)  She wrote about her own ambitions as a writer, “I aim to startle as well as please.”

For some time now one of my essential equations for effective poetry has been from Horace, who said that art should delight and instruct.  Another is, I think, just rumor I’ve netted from of the wind: a poem should appeal viscerally, emotionally and intellectually.  Lately I’ve wondered if musically and rhetorically are different categories or if they are subsumed by the first three.  The wind of rumor and hearsay and unattributed advice is the wind I mean, but that bit of wisdom dovetails neatly with Eliot’s suggestion that a poem can be felt before it is understood.  And I’ve long been fond of the Horace, that “delight” echoed in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (“To such a deep delight ’twould win me”)  and then Robert Penn Warren (“Tell me a story of deep delight”), from “Audubon: A Vision.”

Now there’s something in that “startle as well as please” that seems necessary, too.  Many times I have wrought and wrestled with a poem whose tone, pace, imagery, figures, taste and pitch and shape are just not quite cooperating in a satisfactory manner, though my rational self has contributed all it can and insists that this should be working?  The necessary something I’m lacking need not shock or impress or bewilder, but startle.  I see that the term goes back to a Middle English word related to “start,” but I don’t agree that present usage implies, as the Mirriam Webster suggests, “not seriously.”  A startling moment can change your life.

Perhaps my new directive is somewhat at odds with Dickinson’s “dazzle gradually,” but it may be the last step completing a dazzlement.  William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” comes to mind, especially that moment when the traveler/narrator says, as he pauses beside the dead doe on that dark and perilous Wilson River road, “I could hear the wilderness listen.”  Similar moments arise in Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” near the end of Dickey’s “The Heaven of Animals” with “that sovereign floating of joy,” the close of Cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s],” “Ariel,” “The Art of Losing” or any number of Dickinson poems.  Most any reader can supply a provocative list.

The quotation from Spark has really given me a second wind, rescued and refreshed me the way that crow shaking down “a dust of snow” onto Frost’s narrator has, saving a part of the “rued” day.  The quotation startled me, but did not alarm me.  It arrested me and redirected me and revived me, and it has something to do with delight and instruction, not just a little to do with visceral, emotional and intellectual impact.  I’m left to pursue the rest of my day’s journey with a renewed appetite to be startled, and to embrace what is revealed.

For a writer, it’s worth remembering that Frost wrote “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”  Same goes for a startle.  Maybe there’s some comfort in this.  The process of revision is often subtle and shadowy, trial and error, catch as catch can.  It’s hard to be sure whether a two or three syllable word here keeps the line resonantly vernacular, whether a Latinate word there contributes or distracts.  But I think we know when our own choices startle us, and if we make it through a draft unstartled, it’s back to rubbing the wild sticks together, aiming to strike the startling spark.

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The Cave

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I recently read Plato’s Republic where he describes his ideal society by speaking through Socrates and in a way personal criticism of his beliefs. Based on his metaphorical and fictional society, all learning begins in a cave. This cave prevents people are not allowed to see the outside world, instead they see shadows of figures designed by teachers. These cave dwellers receive basic education such as  physical training, music, and arts. In the cave, there are some that do not pass this base level of training and are forced to stay in the cave. If the individuals successfully complete the training,  then they are allowed to leave the cave. At minimum, these people are now known as ‘auxiliaries’. The people who left the cave are now given mathematical training and obtain a basic understanding of hypothetical reasoning which leads to them gaining an understanding of true reality. After years of seeing shadows and reflections, these people are now able to recognize what is real. Later, the people are taught how to use dialect and are now able to engage in communication. Furthermore, this teaches them to be skilled enough to interact with cities and become rulers. Those who are able to grasp reality and use dialect are worthy of becoming teachers. These people now return to the cave for political training from the previous class or rulers. Furthermore, they become the teachers who educate the cave dwellers on physical training, music, and objects through shadow puppets.  After their return to the cave, these teachers become rulers. They engage in philosophical thought and lead the people. These philosophical rulers return to the cave one last time to educate the next generation of teachers on how to become great political rulers.  Finally, this class of philosophical rulers is free to live on the rest of their day as they seem fit at the age of 50.

I was fascinated by Plato’s description of the cave because it is what influenced so many political philosophical thinkers, government leaders, and literary texts.  It forms the basis of the hierarchical concept in Aristotelian thought. Hitler’s totalitarianism gained some of its basis from Plato’s idea of the guardians and philosophical elites having absolute control. Similarly, he believed the Germans were the superior race, and should have absolute control. Furthermore, one can argue the logic of 1984 and Brave New World were also derived from political thought gained founded in Platonism.

Later in the Republic, Plato destroys his argument throughout the text claiming that the Cave ideology is impossible. This is because eventually greedy, incompetent people will come to power and ruin the whole system. Nepotism will take effect and the wrong people will be given the opportunity to become rulers, which will instill rebellion from the citizens and an overthrow of the system. Some may ask, why Plato spent the majority of the book discussing the logic of cave, if he was just going to conclude with how unrealistic the idea is? Plato wrote this text to show that there is no such thing as a perfect government even if every aspect of their life is controlled. Plato believes that every nation or group of people will naturally go through a cycle from Kallipolis (philosophy reason rulers), Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.  In any system of government, some will be oppressed, and some will believe they are not being given a chance to maximize their potential. I believe Plato’s work is truly underappreciated as it is not being taught in the modern day curriculum. I asked many of my classmates and the only knowledge known to them was that he was a philosopher. Plato is the base of all political philosophy and is the father of his field. In this sense, I truly believe Plato is undervalued and wish people were encouraged to study someone so vital to political thought throughout time.

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Emily Dickinson and Bread

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To continue with Shenandoah’s apparent and impromptu Emily Dickinson theme this week (see our most recent Poem of the Week, Dickinson’s “To Tell the Beauty Would Decrease,” here: https://shenandoahliterary.org/blog/2017/10/to-tell-the-beauty-would-decrease/), I thought it only appropriate to talk gluten. Dickinson herself was, after all, a skilled baker of bread.

 

Am I the only one who is fed up with the gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo/Whole 30/high-fat, low-carb whatever-else-there-is food fad? Growing up, I ate what my mother put on the table – there were no “special dietary needs” (save legitimate allergies and the month I would only consume blue foods) in my adolescent vocabulary. A stable of my diet – and one that is evidently now considered blasphemous – was bread. In all shapes and sizes, savory and sweet, as an accompanying player or the star of the show, I loved bread.

The poet Emily Dickinson evidently loved bread, too. During her life, which began with her birth in Massachusetts in 1830 and ended with her death in 1886, Dickinson could most reliably be found in her kitchen, the place in the house she thought most “creatively nourishing.” I can’t say I disagree – I’m writing this very post hunched over my kitchen counter, watching a cast-iron pot in the oven. Dickinson was a prize-winning baker, a well-known giver of sweets, and a benevolent fattener of children with her famous gingerbread. She was responsible for rising early and baking the family’s daily bread, as her father preferred the taste of his daughter’s bread to any other.

 

She also loved the chance to experiment with new recipes. An excerpt from a letter to her friend reads, “thank you, dear, for the quickness which is the blossom of request, and for the definiteness – for a new rule (Recipe) is a chance. The bread resulted charmingly…” Dickinson is right – a new recipe is a chance: a chance to negotiate. Every person who really loves to cook knows this. A rule (recipe) is no hard-and-fast rule, per se, they’re meant to be broken, changed, and edited. You receive a recipe from a friend or acquaintance, you try it out, you make changes and personalize it.

What Dickinson understood is that baking, and baking bread, is an imperfect science. Not only in the obvious way, meaning that bread almost always contains some sort of leavening agent that forces a chemical reaction (yeast, by the way, is quite literally a living fungus that feeds on the sugars in flour, facilitating the “rising” action of bread dough – ah, science), but also in the more subtle way – there involves a question, a series of experiments, and a conclusion. Take the bread I am currently watching bake in the oven, for instance: my question – did I let this dough rise long enough on the counter, in the right climate, before I baked it? My experiment – let’s bake this thing and see how it turns out. My conclusion – to be determined, when this bread comes out of the oven. If my experiments prove fruitless (i.e., this bread is awful), then it’s time to edit some part of the recipe or methodology. Go back to the drawing board, and try something else. It’s supposed to be fun.

I see writing in the same light. We have a subject that we want to explore, we set about exploring it in a series of experiments, and either we are happy with the conclusion or we are not. So writing is a lot like cooking bread, in my opinion. People are intimidated by them both, myself included. The great things is, both can be edited. And poetry, like bread, can bring people together.

Being in the kitchen reminds me of this. When writing, like baking bread, was fun, not stressful or obligatory. Just filling journals in my childhood bedroom with countless short stories and angst-y poetry. When bread was an ally, not suddenly public enemy number one. For Dickinson, the kitchen acted in the same way, as an inspiration incubator. She often wrote early versions of poetry on the backs of flour labels. Like this one:

The Things that never can come back, are several —
Childhood — some forms of Hope — the Dead —
Though Joys — like Men — may sometimes make a Journey —
And still abide

Written on the back of a recipe for coconut cake. Baking is considered a traditionally “female” enterprise. Maybe poetry should be, too. Both  are nourishing, and quite forgiving.

I just got my bread out of the oven and sliced it. Today is one of my dearest friends 22nd birthday. I gave her a piece and her eyes closed with the audible crunch of the bread. “All I want for my birthday is this entire loaf to myself,” she said. No edits necessary this time, it appears.  

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Redeeming Dickens

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Whenever people find out that I’m an English major, their first question is almost always, “Oh, what’s your favorite book?”  Glossing over the fact that regardless of one’s major or career field, everyone ought to have a favorite book, I typically give a two-part answer.  First, I say Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that truly changed the way I approach both literature and life in general.  However enriching and influential that work may be, though, Invisible Man is not my absolute favorite, want-it-if-ever-stuck-on-a-deserted-island read.  That distinction belongs solely to Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

My fondness for this archetypal bildungsroman narrative is in large part due to nostalgia.  I read the abridged version when I was nine or ten, and then moved on to the full text when I was a freshman in high school; this twofold exposure allowed me to mature along with the storyline in a way, working vicariously through Pip’s coming of age as I came of age myself.  I felt as strongly about his boyish desires to discover the identity of his secret benefactor, to become an empowered and affluent man of status, and to marry his beloved Estella, as if they were my own aspirations.  When I first read the story’s conclusion, where Pip writes, “I took [Estella’s] hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her,” I felt a sense of resolution and satisfaction unparalleled by any other work of fiction I have had the pleasure of experiencing.  I can honestly say that I have never identified emotionally with a protagonist as much as I did, and still do, with Pip.

I used to answer the favorite book query just with Great Expectations, but don’t anymore due to a sad reality I have come to understand: a lot of people really do not like Dickens.  They probably read one of his works in middle or high school, such as David Copperfield or A Tale of Two Cities, and found his long-winded prose exhausting.  Ever since, they have fostered an almost visceral aversion to the author’s work, ranking it just below the iTunes terms and conditions on their ‘for pleasure’ reading lists.  So, after growing tired of hearing “Oh wow, couldn’t be me,” whenever I brought up Great Expectations first, I relegated it to a secondary position out of a desire to avoid admitting that I actually enjoy reading books by an author whose writings are often considered the most effective cure for insomnia in students aged 12-18.

All that is changing, though, right here and now. I have decided to take a stand.  Charles Dickens deserves better than his current reputation as the literary equivalent of Nyquil.  Yes, his books are quite long and wordy.  Also yes, everyone is capable of not only reading them but of enjoying and appreciating them as well.  To help convince you, I have put together a brief, mostly unbiased list of three reasons why reading Charles Dickens is well worth the effort:

  1. The names of Dickens’s characters are just plain awesome.  Simply by reading names such as Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), Wackford Squeers (Nicholas Nickleby), and Toby Crackit (Oliver Twist), readers gain immediate insight into these individuals’ defining traits and motivations.  Hey, even J.K. Rowling blatantly channels Dickens for the naming of many Harry Potter series characters (Severus Snape, Dolores Umbridge, I mean, c’mon).
  2. Knowing Dickens’s iconic lines (in their entirety) will help you be a more sophisticated dinner party guest.  Sure, everyone knows “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” but if you read A Tale of Two Cities you can impress your friends and intimidate your enemies by picking up where they leave off: “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”.  At the very least, you’ll be the envy of all in attendance at the next local bar trivia night.
  3. By far the most important reason, and the one I hope really hits home.  The length of his books actually allows for greater reader investment in the lives of the characters involved.  You spend so much of your own time engaging with their elegantly developed personalities and journeys that you come to love David Copperfield as much as you loath Uriah Heep (David Copperfield), to root as strongly for Sydney Carton to find redemption as you do for Doctor Manette to find peace (A Tale of Two Cities).  Charles Dickens has so much valuable perspective to share on life, so many stories that transcend time in their ability to capture eloquently the workings of the human soul.  To hold a grudge against him for that time years ago when he made you want to drop out of ninth grade lit is to deny yourself some of the most immersive, enlightening, and inspirational storytelling the English-speaking world has ever produced.  Don’t be lame, give Chuck a second chance.
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