Wednesday, November 4, 2009
However, after I made that statement to my roommate, I had a mental double-take, and my mind immediately went to Voltaire’s Candide and its black comedy. Leonard frames/words the passage on the Germans so hysterically that it has the same effect as one of Voltaire’s many passages in which his characters offhandedly lose a limb. You feel tricked into laughing at what, after you think about it, is a truly horrendous description or assertion. This stark contrast between the humor and the stark, mindless violence forces you to reconsider whether, even in light of a presumably purposeful exaggeration, such a characterization doesn’t more closely resemble the reality than would a less straw-man-like one. And if so, again, exactly how eviscerating is Leonard trying to be? I’m not sure exactly where to go with this question. I don’t think he treats every position as severely as he does the conservative, though he does mock the Mandrill in his assertion that Lenin and Trotsky might also have “blue wrinkles on [their] nose[s] and . . . sky-blue rump[s]” (146).
In general, he seems to treat the whole episode with cynicism. The bestiary genre calls to mind the moralizing fable, but that does not seem to apply as directly as would a connection with Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowles: a debate amongst animals that ends on an unsatisfactory note. I imagine that Leonard would support the voice of the owl (a traditional figure of wisdom), but the elephant gets the last word—his interruption even prevents the owl from finishing his statement. Thus the closing argument comes from a character who makes similar claims to validity as does the rhinoceros (appeal to age), and it frames the issue in troubling language, painting “BORN INTO CAPTIVITY” as a positive. Furthermore, I believe that Leonard worked very actively in favor of a united nations, which the elephant dismisses. Nonetheless, his dichotomy of fear and security (in this case termed captivity) bears persuasive force, undermined only by the terminology. Is Leonard deconstructing the binary by presenting it through a non-normative voice (or is that my modern interpretation), or is he merely presenting a cynical view of how the political process stymies the voice of reason whenever it gets the opportunity to speak and superficially satisfies everyone (the zoo animals do applaud) by appealing to defunct, but still respected, political metaphors—where people feel safe. I’m tempted to try and apply the Zizek reading we had for Dr. Morrissey’s class this week in which he criticizes what he terms as para-politics: the rule-governed debate that prevents real politics from occurring, but I would probably botch it, and I’m not sure that it would work anyway, so I won’t.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Furthermore, the descriptions of the two cement the connection even more. In conforming with convention, “life escapes” (3) resulting in “embalming the whole” (3) of the text. And the efforts specifically geared toward satisfying the conventions of realism are “but labour misplaced to the extent of obscuring and blotting out the light of conception” (3). Perhaps it is a stretch to frame this last statement in terms of childbirth, but I would assert that the terms of labor and conception are grounds enough for at least making the observation that Bradshaw similarly “forbade childbirth” (97) by his mental patients. More directly, the images of death invoked in the embalming come up explicitly as in the position of the proper hostess, Clarissa is mortified at hearing the Bradshaws talk about death at her party.
A little more abstractly, Clarissa sees Sir Bradshaw as “very distinguished,” “a great doctor,” “a man absolutely at the head of his profession, very powerful,” a man who “had been perfectly right; extremely sensible” (178); and yet she resists him, dislikes him even though she does not know exactly why. He is oppressive, even claustrophobic—“what a relief to get out to the street again!” (178). Similarly in her essay, Woolf describes Mr. Bennett as “perhaps the worst culprit of the three, inasmuch as he is by far the best workman. He can make a book so well constructed and solid in its craftsmanship that it is difficult for the most exacting of critics to see through what chink or crevice decay can creep in.” Thus his the very skill and success of the labor acts as an insidious veil to conceal the faults.
So what? Assuming you accept my comparison, how does it apply? Well, if Sir Bradshaw stands for a figure of convention and conformation, then Septimus becomes a figure of modern fiction trying to break free but in this case ultimately unable to do so except by way of self-destruction. Bradshaw becomes the one truly mad: “this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion” (97). In jumping from the window, Septimus tries to escape Homes and Bradshaw, whom he has conflated. “He did not want to die. Life was good” (146), but in order to escape convention, some self-mutilation becomes necessary and in the process renders the work “horribly mangled” (146) in the perspective of convention.
In addition to the internal and psychological nature of the novel, the lack of chapters may be one of Woolf’s attempts to break with convention, creating what might be confusion for readers not prepared to receive it. However, in their place the toll of the hours echo throughout the book: “shredding and slicing, dividing and subdividing, the clocks of Harley Street nibbled at the June day, counselled submission, upheld authority, and pointed out in chorus the supreme advantages of a sense of proportion” (100). Thus in one sense Mrs. Dalloway represents Woolf’s argument in novel form for a break with convention in fiction, and a real tension exists between the labeled madness of Septimus and the true madness of Bradshaw’s all-encompassing proportion. Though Septimus dies, his death for Clarissa “was an attempt to communicate” (180), which according to Woolf’s essay is the sign of a writer: “any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express” (5).
“She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away” (182). But what had he thrown away? Something in which we are all invested, something requiring great daring to cast aside. Was it his life, or was it the system, the convention of living? After all, life itself was good.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Rather than try to take the whole poem on, I thought I’d address a few issues that came up as I was reading the poem and the articles. Throughout his paper Brooks makes a big point out of the Eliot quote he introduces at the opening: “‘So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing; at least, we exist [italics Brooks’]’” (186). I really like the observations he draws from the poem in relation to this statement. However, I am struggling with the consistency between this reading as applied to a section of the poem and another statement he makes later in his paper.
My confusion arises when Brooks says that “the comments on the three statements of the thunder imply an acceptance of them” (203-4) and then proceeds to quote three lines of the Datta (give) section:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Brooks treats this section negatively as far as I can see. The “mere ‘existence’” (204) represented here is insufficient for him, an example of man’s inability to “be absolutely self-regarding” (204). However, Brooks’ overarching emphasis on the primary need to exist regardless of whether such existence results from good or evil action seems to oblige you to read this section as positive. After all, through this “moment’s surrender” the speaker did achieve existence, the mere being a qualification added by Brooks (I think deriving from the use of only, which does not apply the existence, but to the action). And though this section is not immediately connected with the injunction to control, a positive reading would seem to present a contradiction (a moment’s surrender=good as opposed to the need to control=good). Whether Brooks would appreciate what I’ve done here is no longer the point. Now it’s a matter of personal inquiry: can the ideas of ascetic control and imprudent abandon both be accepted?
If I were to try to reconcile them, I would do so by returning to the beginning of the poem. As a young child, Marie was afraid of sledding at the arch-duke’s. However, when her cousin (the arch-duke?) told her to “hold on tight . . ., down [they] went” (16), and “there you feel free” (17). The control obtained through holding on allows for the subsequent freedom and defeat of fear. Perhaps you could parallel the fear factor of sledding in the mountains to an imprudent surrender, but I’m not sure. I could justify the connection of control with the sledding image by the fact that when Eliot writes about control in section five, he uses the image of “the boat respond[ing] / Gaily, to the hand of the expert with sail and oar” (419-20). The guidance of a boat and of a sled are so similarly framed by the hands as controlling agents that I feel the stretch not too outlandish. However, if the connection between the surrender and sledding does not hold, if the surrender must be a negative action, then I would be forced to call into question Brooks’ championing of the existence motif in the poem.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
As already mentioned, Forster represents London as undulating, almost seething, not in the positive image of a living body full of activity, but as suffering from erosive decay, buildings being “swept away in time” as the waves of “humanity piled . . . higher and higher on the precious soil of London” (8). Howard’s End provides a very strong contrast in that (though it changes, significantly, because of the intervention of the masculine and with the implication that it would have been better off if left alone—the stable being turned into a garage particularly), it remains a stable and safe space immune to the flux as well as the prying and oppressive eyes of a hypocritically moralistic society. The great wych-elm tree with its embedded pig’s teeth roots the house deeply in the past, an image somewhat connected with the women of the house as they are the only ones who notice it; however, Forster denies a strict binary: “house and tree transcended any similies of sex. . . . To compare either to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within the limits of the human” (148). The emphasis again falls on connection, here a connection between, not preeminence of, the sexes.
Addressing that constructed preeminence of the male, Forster does challenge the social structure of gender. Henry’s inability to connect his failure with Helen’s largely derives from his (and contemporary society’s) view of gender, the cause of the double standard of sexuality for men and women inherited from the Victorians. Margaret clearly elucidates the male (and societies) response when she contemplates a butler at the Evie’s wedding: “he, as a handsome young man, was faintly attractive to her as a woman—an attraction so faint as scarcely to be perceptible, yet the skies would have fallen if she had mentioned it to Henry” (176). Forster here dares to acknowledge and justify female sexuality.
On a different level, Forster also challenges an elitist aesthetic in the character of Leonard Bast. He makes concerted efforts to prevent “Romance [from] interfere[ing] with his life” (101). He wanted to maintain forced boundaries between the culture he revered and the life he lived. Margaret thought that he “tried to get away from the fogs [the daily grey] that are stifling us—away past books and houses to the truth[, but Leonard] fail[s] to see the connection” (104). Thus in reality he is left only with the “husks of books” (106), the external vestiges of culture, the essence of which he can never realize. Thus he exemplifies an abortive culture that fails to banish that daily grey that continuously resurrects itself throughout the novel.
In regard to similarities between Woolf's short stories and Eliot's early poetry, “The Mark on the Wall” offers a possible parallel to “Prufrock” in its narrator who uses this arbitrary mark as a distraction from some thought or memory brooding in the back of his mind: “that old fancy” of war in medieval terms stained red, which “rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted” (47). The speaker avoids confronting some idea or possibly a reimagined memory by interposing a Dickinsonian fly, as it were, anything to redirect his or her attention. And the narrator's great attention to the identity of the mark seems to indicate a real interest on his or her part to know what it is (an interest that I definitely possessed), but this conjecture ultimately represents an attempt to hold at bay those more troubling visions. Though he or she suggests many possible explanations for the mark and even expresses the need to find out exactly its identity (“I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is” (52)), the narrator argues him/herself back to inertia, hinting at the fear of “some collision with reality” (52)—to solve the riddle will leave the narrator defenseless. Nature urges action as “she perceives . . . [a] mere waste of energy” in a “train of thought” (52), but the speaker bears an innate distrust of action which presumably rules out thought. “Still, there's no harm in putting a full stop to one's disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall” (53). I can't really decide how to interpret the narrator's reaction to the revelation that the mark is a snail. It would make sense for the approach I'm taking for the closing line to be one of disappointment at having lost that focal point of distraction, especially in light of war being reintroduced immediately prior (though this new and unidentified character seems to dislike war out of boredom as opposed to the narrator's red fire-conceived vision of knights and castles). However, I don't see any clear indicators to inherently validate such a reading.
“An Unwritten Novel” shares some similarities with “The Mark on the Wall.” The narrator similarly desires some form of denial of consciousness—she asks the woman on the train to “play the game—do, for all our sakes, conceal it!” (19). Newspapers also receive suspicious and somewhat cynical treatment with the assertion that they know all along with the juxtaposition of peace after The Great War with a train wreck. However Woolf further complicates the identity of the narrator of “Unwritten Novel” is further complicated by an identity with the question of “when self speaks to the self, who is speaking?” (28). I'm left wondering if I've been listening to the same person or different levels of that person (again, similar to possible interpretations in “Prufrock”) the whole time.
I did notice quite a few references to color (Sandra Kemp commments on this a couple times in her article), which addresses some of my uncertainties from last week's readings on the influence of art. Woolf seems particularly fond of red and blue which she uses frequently, though all three primary colors are thrown in together in the flowers of “Kew Gardens.” I'm not sure I can draw any meaningful observations from that fact at the moment, though.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
In contrast to S. P. Rosenbuam's editorial note in which he presents Fry's “Retrospect” as “one of the best summaries of Bloomsbury aesthetics” (398), Jane Goldman sets out (as indicated by the title of her book, The Feminine Aesthetics and Virginia Woolf) to distinguish the aesthetics of the women (specifically Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell) from those of the men of Bloomsbury, the difference lying mainly in the issue of color. Though Fry’s organization of the 1910 exhibition evidences his dependence on “the romantic colour theory of Meier-Graefe” (Goldman 131), the 1912 exhibition reveals (as Goldman argues) that he had shifted his emphasis away from color to Clive Bell’s significant form, which though comprised of “‘lines and colours combined in a particular way’” (134), yet removes the focus from the colors themselves to the shapes that those colors, aided by the lines, create. Woolf and Vanessa Bell, on the other hand, retain a marked interest in the colors themselves as illustrated by the many references Goldman provides.
Whether this distinction between the men and women and their respective predilection for form and color can be extrapolated to the remaining members of Bloomsbury and whether those differences influence the way they write (considering Woolf was the only novelist of the four specifically dealt with in Goldman’s article), I am uncertain. Goldman does indicate a close association between the sisters’ work, and at one point she mentions color as a parallel metaphor in Bell’s painting and one of Woolf’s texts. Perhaps the connections will become more apparent as I read more of the literature, and my personal ignorance of art history and the characteristics of modern art (mitigated somewhat by the readings) definitely plays a part, but at the moment I have difficulty following explicit connections between the art and the literature on the basis of color and form. And without more context, I’m inclined to question a strict gendering of the two.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Even so, taking Torrens (and Eliot’s) advice to look at the poetry holistically reveals some general relations between “Prufrock,” the “Pervigilium” excerpt that Eliot removed from the poem, and some of his other early works. Eliot’s predilection for circular time sequences evidences itself in a comparison of the “Pervigilium” and the “Preludes.” The latter starts at six pm, and the stanzas filter through a twenty-four hour period with particular focus on the transformation of night to day (yet without the optimism usually associated with dawn), the poem eventually “trampl[ing] by insistent feet” through the hours back to six pm. The “Pervigilium” does not complete a full twenty-four hour cycle but focuses (as does the “Preludes”) on the shifts between night and day. Starting at dusk, “when the evening fought itself awake” (10), the poem follows the speaker (who would have been and perhaps still is Prufrock ) through his paranoia in (and of?) the dark which seems about to attack him in the third stanza until dawn inadvertently saves him—when it “at length had realized itself” (25). Yet he is saved only for “Madness” (29), though he has some desire (born out of a sense of claustrophobia or suffocation?) to get to “the window to experience the world” (28), an urge similarly expressed in the “Prelude” as an “impat[ience] to assume the world” (47); yet it is a world about “to fall apart” (Pervigilium 32). Both poems thus evince this tension between not-quite-night and not-quite-day and the anxiety attendant on the instability of the transition as expressed in the speakers' angst and depicted in the putridity of the surroundings (Eliot's ubiquitous fog), particularly of the speakers themselves—“muddy feet,” “soiled hands” (“Preludes” 17, 38), and “broken boot heels stained in many gutters” (“Pervigilium” 31).
A comparison of “Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” also reveals a number of similarities illustrative of Eliot's early poetics. In “Portrait” Chopin replaces Michelangelo as the topic of elitist and unfelt conversation, though this time explicitly spelled out instead of merely alluded to. The lady herself appears suspiciously like a female Prufrock, her “voice . . . like the insistent out-of-tune / Of a broken violin” (56-7), her hesitation evident in her constant false starts and repetition. She may in fact be one of the women of Prufrock's imaginings whose voices die with a “dying fall” (“Prufrock” 52; “Portrait” 122), though in “Portrait” the music of this singular voice is deemed “successful” (122). Eliot apparently has a fascination with paralyzed characters, Prufrock being speared to the wall with his ornate tie pin and the Lady being caught forever “serving tea to friends” (108). Also, alluding back to Eliot's preoccupation with passing time, “Portrait” begins in frozen December and cycles through the seasons back to October, the pending death at the end of the poem perhaps bringing us back to winter.
Just as a final note, “La Figlia che Piange” seems to contrast with the general grim aspect of Eliot's early poetry. Though it is not uniformly optimistic (the failure of a love relationship and contrasting night and day), yet it has a much more open feel to it aided by the flower imagery and the “weav[ing of] sunlight in [the girl's] hair” (3).
Monday, August 24, 2009
In his introduction to Modernism, Lewis Pericles cites scenes from Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby and from Walter Benjamin's “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” the former an image of humanity “'borne back ceaselessly into the past'” despite its attempts to row against the current of time and the latter an interpretation of a painting of an angel “of history . . . irresistibly propelled into the future” (Pericles 32). Such juxtaposition aptly identifies the position of Modernism: a compilation of sometimes contradictory reactions all attempting to cope with the same phenomenon of modernity. Thus Christopher Reed's treatment of the contesting views on interior decorating represented by Le Corbussier's techno-modern approach and the Bloomsburies' domestic ideal as epitomized in the Omega Workshops illustrates well the fractured struggle within Modernism to appropriately express modern life in modern terms.
The vast changes in technology and the paradigm shifts caused by revolution in scientific (evolution) and religious (German higher criticism) thought all combined to form a mirroring combination of optimistic excitement and pessimistic anxiety toward progress, especially after the Great War. The world was moving faster and became for many more impersonal, leading to Michael Levenson's assertion that “crisis is inevitably the central term of art in discussions” (4) of Modernism. The writers of the period, especially of the Bloomsbury group, often sought to engage these tensions politically and socially, making vocal their disapproval of the war and of the inherited social mores of the Victorian era.
Modernists concerned themselves to a large degree with form. Pound's famously ironic dictum, “Make it new,” does in fact characterize a large part of modernist art as cubism and abstract art along with atonal music challenged the traditional mimetic and harmonic expectations in their respective fields. Dramatists such as Luigi Pirandello experimented with conventions of the theater by having their characters consciously break the theatrical illusion through metadrama. And many times such experimentation lead to what Eliot advocated as difficult literature capable of expressing the difficulty of the times. However, as attested to by Bonnie Kime Scott, “aloof indecipherability is not much valued among the [largely female group of] writers contained in [The Gender of Modernism]” (15).
The issue of gender also figures prominently in modernist literature, highlighted by the manner in which it was marginalized by the initial treatment of the period. Women writers were active, producing their own work as well as engaging the texts of their male counterparts. Women's suffrage movements were in full swing in the early 1900s and before, and others like Virginia Woolf followed in the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft in advocating that the universities be opened to women, and further, that women writers of the past be revisited and given their own room in the canon. As illustrated in Scott's introduction to the updated Gender in Modernism, the critical approach and treatment of gender is still evolving and expanding as she compares and contrasts passages from her previous edition.
As treatment of Modernism continues to develop, and its scope continues to broaden, Eliot's statement quoted by Pericles seems ever more appropriate: “the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (27). The writers themselves felt the pressures of the times in which they lived and strove to react to them, to exchange the baton that had been passed on to them by their predecessors. And criticism even today is reshaping the way we view their world as well as our own. Perhaps, in light of the factors of time, resistance against tradition, experimentation, activism, and the redefining of gender among many others, Modernism may best be described as a movement of many actors, speaking not always in unison—often in discord—yet somehow contrapuntal, joined together by their like-minded attempt to deal intimately with the fragmented world in which they found themselves in an attempt to build up the individual in defense against a broken world.