Thursday, May 17, 2012

Final thoughts.

      At the beginning of the semester I was but a babe in the epistemological woods with respect to how to approach literature, much like Young Goodman Brown in Hawthorne's story of the same name. Unfamiliar with the journey narrative structure, I was accustomed to reading in a detached, linear fashion, oblivious to the deeper, more profound aspects within: a forest was just a forest, a city a city, and so on. The ways in which various settings symbolized the protagonist's inner state was a concept which had hitherto eluded me. I had left my "home" of passive reading and entered the "woods" in which I was enveloped by myriad new ways of approaching literature; I didn't understand them all at once, but with guidance new hermeneutical pathways were gradually elucidated before me. I had left my "point A" and found myself deep in "point B."

     With Emerson, and his address "The American Scholar" I seemed to have come to a clearing in the aforementioned woods. Emerson's declamation of the sanctity of free thought and intellectual independence imbued in me a confidence vis-a-vis literary scholarship that had long lay dormant in me. Emerson's assurance that, "In self-trust, all the virtues are comprehended. Free should the scholar be, -- free and brave. Free even to the definition of freedom, 'without any hindrance that does not arise out of his own constitution'" opened up for me new avenues of thought, and as David Hume awoke Immanuel Kant from the latter's "dogmatic slumbers" so Emerson awoke me from mine. His inspiring words, along with your guidance, Prof. Hanley, bolstered my inclination to think and to read creatively, to unfetter myself of the chains which had bound me to thinking only in black-and-white terms; that often there is more profundity lurking beneath the surface of literature.

     When confronted with T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" the confidence I had gained in my ability to more astutely analyze and interpret literature was violently shaken. His deliberate obscurantism, conflicting imagery, and non-linear narrative structure threw the proverbial monkey-wrench in my hermeneutical machinery. When intellectually overwhelmed by such works I rely on what I know that might aid me in my understanding of them. In this case I looked to the historical context in which "The Waste Land" was written that I might make some sense of it. The poem's difficulty lies chiefly in its departure from traditional literary norms. This aberration can be made sense of when one considers that for the first time in human history a war had been fought on a global scale with implements of violence and destruction never before witnessed. The works of Eliot and other modernist American writers such as Ernest Hemingway are recommended by their nonpareil literary representations of the early 20th century Zeitgeist: a groping for understanding and apperception of the world in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event which had claimed millions upon millions of human lives and changed the physical landscape of some of the world's great cities. Eliot's (and Hemingway's) works are often identified with exile--and rightly so--however, it is not merely a physical exile to which their writing speaks; it is an epistemological one as well. Typically one looks to the exterior world for order, for causal and hierarchical anchors to which one can affix oneself to a comprehensible reality. These anchors were rent free from their grounding by the calamity of World War I, leaving intellectuals and laypeople alike adrift in a sea of confusion. "The Waste Land" captures this feeling of waylaid rationality and social orderliness by the selfsame literary techniques which make it so difficult upon first reading. This notion is best captured in the following line which we have discussed at length in class: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch." This quote represents the crisis of identity felt by individuals and the world as a whole as they and it were left to pick up the pieces of a world ravaged by war.

     Cormac McCarthy's The Road, while thematically analogous to "The Waste Land" in that its focus is on man coping with a desolated world, holds to the more traditional A-B-A journey narrative shared by so many of the American literary works we have examined during the course of the semester. Its similarities with the American literary canon do not end there however: the epistemological quandary embodied by the road itself and the unforeseeable dangers attending it are strikingly reminiscent of those represented by the forest in "Young Goodman Brown"; the central protagonist's notion of his and his son's "carrying the fire" brings to mind the call for moral rectitude of Emerson in "The American Scholar"; the spiritual crises undergone by the man remind us of Hemingway's Krebs. What all of these American works seem to share in common is their characters' desire to make sense out of a senseless world, to exercise their free agency where it would be accosted, to manifest for oneself a destiny of his or her own choosing, unrestrained and unmolested by individuals and society alike. To my mind these are the characteristics sine qua non of American literature, and had it not been for this class they would not be nearly as recognizable to me as they are now. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Armory show, 1913

While perusing the Armory galleries, the first work to draw my attention was Abastenia St. Leger Eberle's "White Slave." This sculpture takes a sharp departure from classical norms and the idyllic aesthetic of traditional art, which placed its emphasis on beauty and Romantic themes. Its portrayal of a pimp peddling the services of a young girl shines a light on the underworld of society and the human dregs which populate it. That the girl (and her pimp) are white adds a further polemical characteristic to the work by insisting to its Anglocentric audience that these subversive practices are not confined to other races, that this girl could be from a "respectable" family, that social ills know no race or class.

     Ethel Myers' bronze sculpture "Fifth Avenue Girl" depicts what appears to be an upper-class woman in emaciated countenance and pensive mood; perhaps a commentary on the decadence of the rich and the lack of physical (and spiritual) sustenance wealth can provide. This sculpture's significance lies in its suggestion that even the rich experience alienation and sorrow, that their wealth is not a safeguard against maladies that were traditionally associated with the lower classes.

In continuation of the theme of anti-traditionalism we have Marsden Hartley's "Still Life, No. 2." Hartley takes one of the most traditional, banal subjects of art, the fruit-bowl, and turns it on its head by using only black, white, and grey. This choice of color--or lack thereof--deprives the subject of its livelihood, its inherent naturality, thereby creating a sense of something both alive and dead--the fruit does not appear to be rotten, yet without being able to see its natural colors we are left with something not wholly of the world--somewhere "in between."

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Similarities between Freeman's "Revolt of 'Mother'" and Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper'.

The most obvious similarity between these stories is that their protagonists are both women who in some way defy the will of their husbands. Each "revolt" is directly linked to a structure; in Freeman it is the house with which Sarah is dissatisfied (and the barn, its intended purpose as such with which she is equally dissatisfied), in Gilman the nursery to which the narrator is confined. The result of each revolt is the capitulation of the husbands; in Freeman Adoniram weeps, in Gilman the husband faints. Each of these actions represents a diminution of the husbands' control over their wives. Although we don't get to see what happens after the men regain their composure (or consciousness), that is not the point. The point is that the women have challenged the patriarchal domination to which they had been subjected, and, however fleetingly, attained a level of independence which they had hitherto never possessed.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012



Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Slant—as opposed to level. Avoid telling frank, coarse truths; make them more palatable.
Success in Circuit lies
“Lies” vis-à-vis “Truth” in the preceding line—interesting. Circuit vis-à-vis slanting truths—circumscription? Perhaps it is better to approach the truth in narrowing concentric circles…
Too bright for our infirm Delight
Infirm delight? How can delight be infirm? Aging delight…waning enjoyment…oncoming depression…?
The Truth’s superb surprise
Superb-surprise—similar looking words; alliterative. Truth can be shocking…
As Lightning to the Children eased
Children are scared by lightning…why is “Children” capitalized? Why is “Lightning”? Is she talking about concepts, ideals, or actualities? Does it matter?
With explanation kind
RE: slanted truths, circumscription. Children’s fear of lightning abated by a soothing explanation of it.
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Gradual dazzling: an interesting contrast of concepts. “Dazzle gradually”: the rapid succession of hard “A” produces an interesting sound and feeling when spoken aloud.
Or every man be blind –
RE: First two lnes—profound, barefaced truth is too intense; circumscription necessary to “soften the blow.” Dazzle gradually…if all the profundities of Life were revealed at once, we would die…the life process must necessarily be slow and perpetual, so that we may accumulate bits of the truth slowly, else we go into shock…

Freedom in Emerson, Whitman, and Douglass.

            In the course of tracking and trying to pin down the idea of Freedom in the thoughts of the titular writers, it may be easier at first to whittle away at what Freedom is not, and see what kernel remains at the end of the deconstruction.
            In Song of Myself, Whitman, in his gentle way, commands us, “You shall no longer take things at second or third hand . . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor feed on the spectres in books[…]” In these lines Whitman is advising us, his readers, to dispatch those would-be arbiters of Truth—that is, writers—from our path to enlightenment, and approach the idea ourselves for ourselves, such that wherever our inquiries lead us, what we get in return is pure and unadulterated by dead words and mute voices. A few lines later, Whitman shows his Transcendentalist colors when he writes, “I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe . . . . and am not contained between my hat and boots[…]” Whitman’s notion of Freedom is bound to his idea of the immortality of the soul, that the Human Being as such is unfettered by physical limitations and the artifice of “reality;” for Whitman, to borrow a Kantian term, the “thing-in-itself” of Man—shall we say Man-in-Himself—is an eternal, omnipresent connection with Everything (the Universe, if you like), the truest sense of Freedom there can be.

            Emerson, though more “grounded” than Whitman, espouses a strikingly similar philosophy of Freedom. In “The American Scholar”, Emerson declaims: “If there be one lesson more than another, which should pierce [the scholar’s] ear, it is, The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.” (Italics mine.)
Like Whitman, Emerson emphasizes the preponderance of Man vis-à-vis the external world; what he seeks he will find within himself, and so long as he remains vigilant in his independence of thought his labor will lead him to pure, original concepts. Emerson’s ideal of Freedom seems to rest upon Man’s individuality as such, and his concomitant reluctance to let whatever popular notions are prevalent at the time to steer his course.

Frederick Douglass’s lack of freedom was twofold in character: he was bound intellectually by sheer ignorance, as slaves were forbidden to read or cultivate their minds in any meaningful way, and bound physically by the institution of slavery, specifically by slaveholders and their agents.  
            One might easily reduce the question of Freedom as it concerns Douglass to a purely physical character; that if not for his enslavement and concomitant restriction of movement he would be “free.” Such a judgment would be an oversimplification however, for in Chapter XI of Douglass’s Narrative he recounts his feelings about his having to surrender his wages to his master:  “When I carried to him my weekly wages, he would, after counting the money, look me in the face with a robber-like fierceness, and ask, "Is this all?" He was satisfied with nothing less than the last cent. He would, however, when I made him six dollars, sometimes give me six cents, to encourage me. It had the opposite effect. I regarded it as a sort of admission of my right to the whole.” (Italics mine.) In this last sentence we see, as was elucidated in class, the source of Douglass’s discontent: the products of his own labor are alienated from and surrendered by him to his “master,” his innate sense of agency castrated and pocketed by another. It is this agency that is restored—no, first gained—upon his escape to New Bedford via New York, where he finally becomes the owner and sole proprietor of his labor.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"The American Scholar"

"Each philosopher, each bard, each actor, has only done for me, as by a delegate, what one day I can do for myself."

      Here, Emerson acknowledges and gives credence, however dubious,  to previous men (and women) of genius and action who in their deeds of genius and consequence, and acts of "heroism," have imparted through the centuries an illuminating conception of what it is to be human, an immortal intellectual edifice which constitutes Man's desire for his own immortality through great works, deeds, and thoughts; and consequently inspire successive generations to aspire to similar ideals. To quote Newton, "If I have seen further it is by standing on [the] shoulders of giants."

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


Hey. You can probably figure out my name so I'll skip that part. I'm originally from Oakland, but have spent most of my time deeper in the East Bay. I'm into philosophy, music, cats, beer, and keeping my stress level as low as possible--so far, so good. I feel like I'm a bit too old to still be an undergrad, but it all goes with the low-stress territory. I'm out of introductory remarks so I'll leave you with a cute picture of a cat and some loud music. Enjoy.