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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Political Lessons of Water in the Tao Te Ching

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Professor Gray is a political philosophy professor at Washington and Lee University. In this post, he briefly explains the significance of water in the writings of Lao Tzu who was the founder of Taoism. Taoism advocates humility and religious piety.

1. Fluidity of Effective (wu-wei) Action (in accord with self-difference and duality): idea
of the inner, self-contained dualities/differences and identity of opposites helps exhibit
the relativity of values (e.g., hard vs. soft), depending on where one stands and how one
approaches things—remember the key difference between knowing that (which is a
matter of believing in linguistic claims with rational justification—one knows that
Annapolis is the capital of Maryland) vs. knowing how (which is a matter of ability—one
knows how to ride a bike).


2. Here, think about water’s duality: it is soft if you approach it slowly and gently with your hand, but it can also be as hard as concrete and exhibit great resistance if someone approaches it quickly and from a distance. Therefore, water’s characteristics change and are themselves fluid, even without water changing its essential nature—what matters is how we approach it. In this sense, it changes without actually changing by being both soft and hard at the same time (think of yin and yang circle—opposites are contained within the same entity). Also, consider the example of a swimmer working with the water vs. non-swimmer who thrashes around and drowns. Analogue to politics: more effective rule is about “flow” and efficient action, not tension and resistance—melding with the natural environment, working with and not over/against. This idea provides an alternative form of “political naturalism” whereby the natural does not revolve around human nature or a human-centrism. The “primitive” and “simple” are not in fact so—look at all the complexities and depth around you everyday that does not require your overt, distinctive, grand projects and involvement…even something as apparently boring and simple as water!
3. Tolerance: Lao Tzu also plays upon the fluidity of water because it is a naturalistic
analogue to the rather unpredictable process of becoming, along with its internal
dualities, differences, and relativity of values. In turn, this supports a Taoist ethic of
tolerance. That is to say, we should refrain from passing immediate, strong judgments on a particular person, situation, etc. as “good/fortunate” or “bad/unfortunate” because the value of our values may change from moment to moment, especially depending on
changing circumstances—most of which we do not and cannot control ourselves. In this regard, Lao Tzu is a “contextualist” when it comes to ethical judgments, not a
“universalist” with pre-determined categorical valuations.

4. Humility: Water is adaptive and humble, seeking out the lowest places (try to keep this in mind when Lao Tzu talks about the sage ruler and how he rules). Someone following the nature of the Way (and mimicking the nature of water) does not see or approach the “low” as low in a moral or normative sense, which Lao Tzu claims is an arbitrary linguistic distinction anyway. Its adaptivity, from which we can glean humility, is not seen as a weakness but rather a power, as it gradually (note patience!) melts rocks and brings down large mountains—a further example of the Taoist conception of rule: supple and flexible, yet strong. Also, note the humility displayed in the politics of “mimicry” that is found in mimicking the natural world: believing that the natural world/nonhuman things have something to teach us, and that we are not (and should not) seek to be its master. This reverses a traditional western understanding by reversing the “humans over nature” hierarchy and placing ourselves beneath the nonhuman, which Lao Tzu believes will exhibit the political knowledge exhibited or contained in natural elements such as water. Correspondingly, Taoist political thought privileges absence and humility—doubly so by using natural, non-speaking objects as examples instead of human beings and logos-/reason-centered objects like books or grand pieces of art…here one might think of references to things like doorways, windows, and cups.


5. Clarity through Stillness (especially as a precondition for right/efficient action): water
attains clarity through stillness, and the world (along with the “shine” of its physical characteristics), tends to be distracting and takes our attention away from what is closest/within us. Stillness and not conscious, frenetic energy and effort, allows us to achieve this clarity and better understand and watch what is going on within our own minds. Contrast this, for example, with Socratic dialectic and dialogue (which we’ll be
discussing very soon), which constantly stirs things up, especially in his interlocutors partly by displaying his interlocutors’ confusion and incoherent beliefs. This often leads to aporia (lack of a clear path to move forward), perplexity, and/or impasse. Lao Tzu would say that spending more time blunting our physical and mental activity—especially as it is stimulated through complicated linguistic engagements—is an important method for gaining greater clarity, understanding oneself, and understanding one’s own mind.
6. Anti-Hierarchical, Anti-Competitive, Anti-Distinction: Water runs/flows from the
higher to the lower places and refrains (in many, but not all ways) from “competing” with the physical objects it encounters in an combative, agonistic fashion. From one point of view, competition and efforts at distinction actually make one weaker by making one more vulnerable. By standing out, we make ourselves a target and get increasingly caught in the web of resistance and value judgment (think of celebrities and how harangued they are!). One of the best examples of Lao Tzu’s point in the history of western political thought is in the Classical Greek Athenian practice of “ostracism,” which entailed ostracizing members of the democratic polis who had grown too “notable” and influential for a period of 10 years (it was thought that such individuals could potentially upset democratic political equality and become a tyrant). Hence, Lao Tzu suggests that rulers shun hierarchical distinction, which he believes leads to greater weakness and instability over time.

1 This distinction between types of knowing relates to wu-wei, or non-action/efficient action. Generally speaking, wu-wei is action that is non-self-conscious yet perfectly responsive to the situation. Here we might think of various examples in sports, dance, or theatre. Wu-wei is not mere idleness or lazy, disinterested engagement, but rather a powerful, creative quietude in the midst or flow of activity. It is akin to a virtuoso performance in dance or sports, as opposed to sitting listlessly in my chair. That is, when I am brooding in my chair I am focused on myself, but in the case of playing sports or dancing, I am focused on the performance and the game or dance. In other words, I am in the non-self-conscious “throw” of the activity, efficiently lost in the midst of it—“in the flow,” so to speak. To take a dancing example: at first, I am very clumsy and self-conscious, and everything involving “trying” and remembering the steps. But gradually, as I become more skilled, I have to “think” less and become less self-conscious of myself as engaging in this particular act or activity. This is what it means to move in the direction of wu-wei and mimic the nature of the Way. In wu-wei (non-action/efficient action), the strongly demarcated self disappears and there can then be pure responsiveness to the Way of things. Behavior and activity, then, become less atomized and become more like a “flow”—hence, the analogies to water.

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What to Do When You’re Not on the List

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This is the standard race and ethnicity checklist that everyone has probably had to fill out, on one official document or another:

 

Race /Ethnicity (circle one):

American Indian or Alaska Native

Asian

Black or African American

Hispanic or Latino

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

 

 

Not a lot of people pay it much mind, but I do. Frankly, filling it out has always felt like a set-up.  I have no choice but to tell a half-truth—for the sake of someone else’s demographics chart. If I stare at the list for too long, it gets even more confusing:

 

Why do they set up race and ethnicity to be interchangeable? What’s the difference, anyway?

 

What if there was an ‘and’ between the ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ categories? Would I feel better about them being in the same category?

 

What even am I ?!  WHY IS THIS SO HARD?!

 

Here’s my dilemma: lists like these are setting up ‘Black’ and ‘African American’ as though they’re one and the same. I understand that this may be an easy way to group people together by skin color, for the sake of a diversity chart, but not every black person in the United States is African-American.

 

In my case, I am a black, American-born citizen, but I am also a first-generation Haitian American. Haiti is one of the many Caribbean countries that exist as a result of the African diasporic migrations. I am a product of a particular migration of African peoples to the West Indies, but technically I’m not of direct African descent. As for my American-ness, I am American by birth but not by culture since I was raised in Haitian customs and traditions. At best, ‘Afro-Carribbean’ would be the most accurate way to describe my ethnicity, moreso than ‘African-American.’

 

Unfortunately, not everyone’s ‘most accurate’ is an option—unless they’re willing to write in the classification they prefer at the bottom of every checklist they come across. Instead, they settle for the next, more tangential option with which they may or may not agree. For most of my life, I was also willing to settle. I believed there was no other choice.

 

Until I read Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie.

In the novel, Adichie creates a new way to both racially and ethnically classify her black characters: ‘American-Black’ and ‘Non-American Black’ (AB and NAB). I immediately identified with both of these; their sudden intrusion into my life felt like putting names to two familiar, elusive faces. I’ve never been able to define the wishy-washy, in-between space that I occupy so clearly before. Neither term is as vaguely concrete as ‘Black’ or as confusing as ‘African American.’ If anything, they expand the reach of their limited predecessors. An American-born black person who might consider themselves too removed from potential African ancestors can use the term ‘American Black’ instead of African American. Similarly, the use of the term ‘Non-American Black’ could unlock a new cultural identity for Pan-African and Afro-Latino immigrants, as well as for first generation Americans like myself, who had previously considered themselves invisible among other black people.

It is important to remember that AB and NAB are not perfect terms; there are people of direct and indirect African descent who are not black at all. Still, the way in which Adichie creates these new categories and incorporates them into the structure of her novel is an important call to action in the struggle for cultural visibility. If you can’t find yourself on the standard list, you can always create new categories, and in turn, a new list.

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Byron and Bruce Wayne

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When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Batman.

Oh, who am I kidding, saying “when I was a kid?” Heck, I’ve been a fan of the black-clad comic book vigilante my entire life, and I would be lying if I said I don’t still have a box of dusty Batman comics sitting in my dorm room to this day.

Like most kids, I was into other superheroes, too. But my greatest attachment was always to the Dark Knight himself. While other heroes dressed in bright spandex and fought firmly on the side of righteousness, Batman’s dark look, grim personality, and somewhat-questionble ethics were infinitely more intriguing than the cotton-candy-colored world of Superman.

The first superheroes of the 1930s were morally-upright characters who fought cookie-cutter bad guys in the name of truth, justice, and the American way. But Batman represented something different. Superman grew out of a tradition of American exceptionalism and moral authority, but the Dark Knight came from a different, darker tradition: English gothic literature. Though Batman eventually got the “camp” treatment on television, the dark world, flawed heroes, and horror elements of gothic literature were crucial the character and world of Batman, creating a unique space in popular culture and one of America’s most enduring characters.

Even without having a literary background, one can get very specific images from the term “gothic.” The “goth” in “gothic” implies the dramatically-eyelinered, pentagram-clad subculture of people who listen to too much Cradle of Filth. While authors of the 19th centuries didn’t usually dye their hair black and wear combat boots, dark themes, romantic anti-heroes, supernatural forces, and dark, isolated locations became the standard tropes of the Gothic literature subgenre. Novels like Jane Eyre, Manfred, and Wuthering Heights traded as much on their atmosphere and darkly moody characters as their romantic plots. Batman borrowed heavily from these atmospheric and character choices.

While Superman does his work in the shiny, modern, utopian city of Metropolis, Batman resides in the dark, grim, grimy city of Gotham. While the city is supposed to be a substitution for New York, the design and architecture of the city has always veered towards dramatic spires, looming towers, and an art style midway between art deco and gothic. Combined with the stories often being set at night and the oft-used location of a creepy insane asylum, the setting of Batman comics, despite being contemporary to the 20th century, could easily be the background to a Bram Stoker’s forgotten masterwork. Though the atmosphere is adapted from gothic novels, the most interesting influence they had on the hero was in characterization.

During the Romantic era, a new type of heroic character came into vogue, termed “the Byronic hero.” Unlike the traditional novel heroes, Byronic characters were flawed outcasts, often rich and educated, “who somehow balance their cynicism and self-destructive tendencies with a mysterious magnetism.” Batman’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, would not be out of place in a novel like Jane Eyre. He’s a rich playboy who nonetheless lives a solitary life, his only companion being his lifelong butler. Wayne’s self-destructive flaws lead to him fighting crime, and, true to a Byronic hero, he ends up attracting plenty of heroines and villainesses with his brooding magnetism. This character choice is the most singular thing about Batman. From the beginning, his character has been shrouded in mystery, loneliness, and trauma, leading him towards his life of crime fighting. The backstory for Batman’s character would be considered dark, even for a pitch-black gothic novel. In the first year of the comic’s production, the writers explained that Bruce Wayne became a vigilante after watching his parents’ murder as a young child. The idea of a protagonist whose dark past results in an identity that he must hide from his familiars is a device used famously in Jane Eyre. While it is now common for comic book heroes to have a complex character story, Batman was one of the first comics to explore this route, and ended up paving the way for comic books to become literary.

The gothic nature of the Batman comic books was unique and revolutionary when it was created, standing in opposition to the pristine, bright world of other superheroes. But why has this dark character stayed such a crucial part of the public consciousness since then? We empathize with his story and understand his choices, the dark themes appeal to mature readers, and the atmosphere creates a cold excitement. But the dark nature of Batman comics, and gothic literature in general, does something more. Gothic literature, and the increasingly dark stories of Batman, force us to come face-to-face with the grotesque and terrifying parts of human nature, making us evaluate the dark parts of ourselves. Batman, as a hero, most constantly suppress his negative nature when facing these threats, and, in the nature of a true hero, comes out victorious.

Happy almost-Halloween.

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Why F. Scott Fitzgerald Would Have Loved La La Land

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It’s a bold claim, to be sure. But I hold that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved La La Land, – and not simply because the movie pays homage to jazz.

Scott Fitzgerald is forever immortalized as one of the greatest American writers since the publication of his most famous work The Great Gatsby. Heralded now as the ‘Great American Novel’, The Great Gatsby is a staple of American education. I remember studying the structure, plot, and symbols of the story in a middle school English class, twice more in two separate high school English classes, and then again in a college seminar.

My opinion remains, perhaps, unpopular. I cannot say I ever particularly connected with, respected, or even liked a single character who filled the pages of my now worn copy of The Great Gatsby. I never understood my Professor’s definition of Gatsby as a hero. Gatsby was a dreamer. He lived a life of utter illusion, and saw the world, not as it was, but as he hoped it to be. To Fitzgerald, who championed this idea of new heroism (and to my Professor) Gatsby’s refusal to accept the truth of the world made him a hero. To me, it made him a coward.

That is until I watched La La Land.

The age gap between The Great Gatsby and La La Land is ten years shy of a century.  Yet despite this, La La Land finally made F. Scott Fitzgerald and his hero ideal click for me.

La La Land depicts the struggles of an ambitious actress named Mia (Emma Stone) and a devoted Jazz musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) as they maneuver the hope-crushing streets of modern-day Los Angeles, fighting for both their dreams and their future together. [SPOILER ALERT] The movie ends as Mia, trailing her husband, turns around and meets eyes with Sebastian one last time over the nostalgic haze of his crowded Jazz club. In the moment, both imagine their life together. Then the music ends, and reality sets in. Both have surpassed their ambition. But it has taken them on diverging paths.

Soon after I watched La La Land for the first time, I read a review that described the underlying message of the movie to be: “in a place of dreams, not every one of them comes true”.  My immediate, almost visceral, response sparked an avalanche of thought that surprisingly enough led straight to Fitzgerald.

The message of La La Land is so much more than “in a place of dreams, not every one of them comes true”, just like The Great Gatsby is about so much more than working hard to achieve wealth and success. La La Land, at heart, depicts the beauty and significance found in having the ability to dream. Mia’s Audition song, played at one of the most climatic parts of the movie, expounds this. The lyrics read out, “Here’s to the ones who dream, foolish as they may seem; Here’s to the hearts that ache, here’s to the mess we make”. Dreaming is not the means to an end – like hope, or ambition. Dreaming is the end.

Mia continues to sing, “A bit of madness is key to give us new colors to see, who knows where it will lead us? And that’s why they need us”. It was in this moment that I finally understood Fitzgerald’s ideal of a hero – a character who lives a life of illusion and endless possibilities. The dreamers, the people with a bit of ‘madness’ are the Gatsby’s of the world. And though they are perhaps a little bit mad, they are necessary to make the world a beautiful place. The ‘they’ in Mia’s song fit into Fitzgerald’s idea of anti-heroes – people who cannot dream and whose world lacks the luster and color and the world of a dreamer would hold.

While watching La La Land I transcended my normal perspective on life and dreams, as the characters did. Although it was hardly realistic, I believed from the movie’s opening number that she, as an admittedly average actress, and him, as a struggling musician, could not only both find success but do so while staying together. I dreamed with them the whole time; I believed in a happy ending.

In this lies why the movie was so effective to me.

I realized as the last number played out that the movie was about to end. Additionally, I realized it was about to end with Mia married to someone else and Sebastian alone. For a moment, the illusion I was under the whole movie came crashing down. But then, right after the montage of what their life together could have looked like, and right after Mia walks out of the club, she turns around. They make eye contact and smile at each other. Is this peaceful, almost feel-good ending possibly realistic? Is it part of the montage still or really happening in the movie? I don’t know for sure. But, as the audience, I am left believing – perhaps dreaming – that it did. My own ability to believe in such endless possibilities and to dream that the world really could be this way is significant to how I walked away from the movie feeling.

I see Mia and Sebastian as tragic, but beautifully so. Their lives are full of passion and color. Just like Jay Gatsby’s. And so, I hold that F. Scott Fitzgerald would have loved not only the heroic characters present in the film, but the power the film carries to transform its audience into dreamers themselves.

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Use of the Grotesque

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I recently spent a Friday evening babysitting two 7-year-old girls. While their parents enjoyed a night out on the town, we settled down on a corner of the plush toy-room carpet to play a bit, before showers and bed. I was granted the distinct honor of handling the girls’ newest doll. Complete with silver-highlights, platform combat boots, metallic lipstick, and a sheer mesh tee, she was a far-cry from the more traditionally styled American Girl dolls I played with in my youth. As opposed to “Molly” or “Josephine”, her name was “Frankie Stein”.

The girls were keen to show off their entire collection of Monster High dolls. I met all of Frankie Stein’s little friends, “Draculaura”, “Clawdeen Wolf”, “Ghoulia Yelps” and “Freak Du Chic”.  They featured skyscraper shoes with casual outfits, monochromatic makeup, and multi-colored hair.

 

Although the Monster High American fashion doll franchise hit shelves in 2010, many of the styles that were characteristic of the dolls even then are suddenly trending today in the world of high fashion. Fashion icons like the Jenner and Hadid sisters have inspired their fan bases by wearing athletic clothes with high-heels, metallic dark lip looks, and, of course, millennial pink hair. As I sat there playing dolls in a world of make-believe horror with the girls, I wondered if these gorgeous, grotesque dolls had somehow predicted cultural patterns before those of us less inclined to do so had tuned in? Did they somehow reflect subtle shifts in thinking that perhaps existed even a full six years ago?

 

Of course, as soon as the house was quiet for the night, my inner nerd seized on the grotesque themes these dolls brought to children’s toys. The use of the grotesque is not new to the world of readers and writers of English literature. The works of Edgar Allan Poe, staples of most middle or high school English programs, are marked by the use of mysterious and macabre themes. Renowned 20th century American short story writer Flannery O’Connor highlighted her own use of the grotesque in short stories that were otherwise placed in safe, convention settings that readers would find familiar. In her piece “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction she described writers as “fundamentally seekers and describers of the real” and so, she used subtle elements of horror in her works to reveal the underlying darkness she saw in the world.

The world we live in today is much different than the world of Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor. We don’t need to read about startling figures with ugly motives to know that people can be evil and the world can be scary. The very fact that I remember instinctively putting my keychain (that contained a small can of pepper spray) on the couch next to me as the house grew dark that night speaks to the ugly possibilities we’re taught from a young age to expect behind every familiar scene. Dolls that feature such a grotesque nature may seem problematic to some, but we can hardly deny that they are entirely unrealistic.

I recently read a poem entitled “Weapons Discharge Report” by Dan Albergotti in The Best American Poetry 2017. In it, Albergotti describes Officer Darren Wilson pulling his gun on eighteen-year-old Michael Brown and murmuring “…it looks like a demon…” before opening fire. The piece is, perhaps, political by nature – but more importantly it is grotesque by nature. It details the death of a young man. No matter the politics, how could it not be grotesque?

As I read Ablergotti’s poem, I wondered if there is a place for the grotesque in the literature we read today? How is this piece really any different than a news report? How can it avoid blending in with the new horrors we read about every day? Instead of stirring readers up, might it not serve to desensitize us further?

Robert Frost believed, much like Flannery O’Connor, that the role of writers was to pen works that end in a “clarification of life” – that bring readers a dose of reality. He wrote in “The Figure a Poem Makes” that this end is “not necessarily a great clarification” however, but a “momentary stay against confusion”. In this distinction lies the chief justification for the continual use of the grotesque in literature and culture today. The grotesque elements of modern literature, or children’s toys even, may not need to shatter any illusions that the world is a safe place, but they may serve to make us pause. A poem, no matter how rich its language, will never be as vivid as a video of the same event the television may depict. But, it has value yet. And its value extends much further than just being able to shock people by mere ‘use’ of the grotesque.

I believe that literature is able to create a space that takes real life experiences to a realm that news reports and television cannot touch. A poem can be manipulated in a way that films cannot, in way that contributes to their validity rather than discounts it. The unsettling vivid imagery that a piece contains may reflect the images we live with every day, but the stillness – the momentary pause – suddenly impedes us from thinking of an image as just another one. It is suddenly memorable, stark. We suddenly realize how badly we want to live without it.

If even for a moment.

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Ten Thousand Knocks

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As I was recently browsing through the literary journal Ploughshares, I stumbled across a story called “Ten Thousand Knocks” about a young man named Kei. His first job in the ‘real world’ is to ensure tenants pay their rent on time. As an insurance enforcer, he is at liberty to encourage punctual payment with threats of violence (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 103). He has threatened a countless number of people, and asks one struggling resident, “Do you have any idea how many doors I’ve knocked on, Miss Tamura? Dozens and Dozens. Hundreds, probably. So many that I’ve lost count. I’ve spent the last two years going to every corner of Ibaraki prefecture. I must have knocked ten thousand times” (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 106). Kei is suited to the job and finds it lucrative, but as events unfold he faces a moral dilemma. Should he continue to do the job for the profits or should he quit because he is profiting off the pain of others? Finally, one day Kei steals himself to pound down the door of yet another deficient tenant. He “pulses himself into a batting stance…but no matter how hard he tries to, he can’t force his muscles into a swing” (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 110).

I was struck by how strongly I identified with the character of Kei after finishing the story. As a young man poised to enter the work force, I found his story truly relatable. Kei saw limited opportunities before him and chose the career that was most lucrative, without looking at the moral consequences. He did not enjoy being an enforcer; he did not want to hurt other people. When he finally makes what is portrayed as the moral choice at the end of the tale, he must acknowledge he will most likely be fired and must search for a new profession.

The subject of employment is foremost in my mind and the minds of 450 of my peers as we look forward to graduation later this academic year. We know competition is steep. It is very tough to get a job in the working world. It is even tougher to get a job you want, with the pay you desire, in the field of your choosing. Students have to make many tough decisions about what their first job will be. Should they take a job with the best work/life balance? Should they take a job that leads to the most money despite what it may entail? I think the answer lies within each individual. Some people are willing to sell their souls for a job. Others, need a balance. Some prefer a more altruistic career to feel accomplished from day to day.

“Ten Thousand Knocks” truly showcases the external struggle between Kei and the outside world. The author depicts in detail how strongly Kei fights to embrace his role as an enforcer. Kei progresses from a child-like view of the world to mature outlook. In one vivid scene he stands in a batting cage, missing how he used to play baseball, and wishes that life was still as simple as it used to be.

Should Kei have never taken the job? Was he wrong to choose the most lucrative career available to him? It may seem easy to judge his actions from a distance, but an in-depth understanding of his motivations reveal how similar, perhaps, they may be to our own. Kei mentions in the text how he always thought about other people leading happy lives (Ploughshares Vol 43 No. 2, 104). He knew they had jobs, money, and were able to provide for the people they cared about. Kei knew he had to do something in his life in order to put food on the table. He got desperate and leapt at the first career opportunity presented.

If you ask me, Kei made the right decision in the end to quit his job as an enforcer. However, I still cannot blame him for taking the job to begin with. He was simply doing what he thought necessary to survive in the scary realities of a modern world.

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