Dear Unfortunate Friends:
It has come under my consideration that somewhere in the great wide world, with its broad lands and long history, that perhaps, somewhere out there, there is more than one woman with the name Amanda Gignac.
To each of you I send my sincerest apologies.
I am but the messenger, but the news I bear is bad. See, the thing is, for the majority of you, you will, I'm afraid, go through life being only second best at being what you are - an Amanda Gignac, that is. And by majority, I mean, all but one of you. My reasoning on this is, sadly, ironclad, and I'm afraid that after listening to it, you'll be forced to agree.
Of course, at some level, this is TRUE of any name, right? There can only one best Farley Finklebinder, or Teresa d'Avila, or even Adolf Hitler, after all. Every name will have its champion. But with these other names, at LEAST, I believe, I could accept an argument of equality. Perhaps there have been several, equally great, say, Lucy Talbots, or Horace Waldens. Perhaps.
But Amandas... I'm sorry. You see, its a simple process of elimination. Imagine the best person possible, imagine this ideal. Who is it? Mother Theresa? Emily Dickinson? Paul McCartney? Whatever example you think of it, I'm afraid it so chances that there is an Amanda Gignac superior to the individual you are thinking of.
Wait... Paul McCartney is your ideal human being? Have you heard 'Band on the Run'?
My knowledge of the greatness of aforementioned Amanda Gignac is unparalleled - I somehow tricked her into marrying me, 12 years ago today (I find this incomprehensible as well - how could one so great be so inclined? I put it in the same category as 'how did God lose when Jacob wrestled with him?' and 'If Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had a cagefight, could either of them pay attention to the amtter at hand long enough to win?' It is an unanswerable question. Life has those). Its on account of that, in fact, that I acan say that I apologize to ALL the Amanda Gignacs of the world - one of them simply for a different reason for the others. At any rate, believe me, oh Amanda Gignacs of the world, you've been beaten. You may submit your letters of surrender to the address of aforementioned ubermanda.
Take heart, friends! There is a good chance that you do not share the Great Amanda's middle name (which will remain undisclosed). So you DO have a fair shot at being the world's best Amanda Anne Gignac. Or Amanda Imelda Gignac (though your mother was cruel with that combination). Or Amanda Garfield Gignac. Or whatever. But in the larger world of Amanda Gignacs... I'm afraid you're doomed. Don't tell all the Amandas of the world, but I'm pretty sure they're right out of the running for Best Amanda, as well. Sorry.
Best of luck to you in your second-place endeavours. Its not so bad being a middling specimen of your type - take my word for it.
I give to you my voice --
My lips that press, unpress, impress upon my breath,
I keep these to myself -
I give to you my voice --
My tongue that touches, traveling in susurrations, raising war against my gullet gates,
I keep this to myself -
I give to you my voice --
My throat that hoards the hollows of my breath, that stitches hems along my voices edge,
I keep this to myself -
I give to you my voice --
The words, yes, like a deck of slides,
Blooming stems of the inane,
Distilled to fit agendas:
A self composed of meeting minutes -
And yet, I am the long-walled, warm and humid cavern,
That you cannot see,
You cannot have, you cannot see.
My voice is a fat-threaded fustian,
And I tell you to retrieve from it the contours of the loom,
From the whispers, curled, and warbled hissings, half devoured by the copper wire.
Listen, listen close.
Listen, listen close.
(images by Double-M)
It was then that she happened upon the door of Edward Charles Pickering, a professor of astronomy at Harvard, who took her on as a housemaid. She worked hard, raised her child, and lived quietly. It was three years later that Pickering, frustrated at the poor quality work he got from his male research assistants, angrily declared that even his housemaid could do a better job. Little did he know how right he would end up being.
Pickering hired Fleming on to his academic work shortly thereafter, basically to do clerical labor. Soon, however, Fleming showed that she had a startling eye for detail, and an excellent head for complex scientific topics. Within a few years she was contributing significantly to astronomical research, including devising a system for classifying stars based on the amount of hydrogen they burned, using a prism to separate the light they emitted to a telescope. Her work continued for many years, and she is the discoverer of many stars and astronomical bodies, including, in 1888, the Horsehead Nebula.
By 1899, powerfully affected by Fleming's work, Pickering expanded upon his success, and ended up hiring dozens of women in the astronomy department of Harvard. Promoted now to the position of Curator of Astronomical Photographs, Fleming supervised their work.
Known as 'Pickering's Harem' or the 'Harvard Computers', the group eventually produced the first catalog of stars organized by brightness, a system still used (with some modifications, many of which where made by other members of the Harvard Computers) today. They were exceptionally poorly paid, earning little more than a factory worker, but nonetheless produced many of the greatest of the early female astronomers of the United States.
(This post was written in honor of Ada Byron Lovelace Day, 2012)
If you haven't heard about the recent Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, I hope you look it up. Is it likely to fail? Sure, probably. But, just as a measure of people's spontaneous desire to try at things, its a wonderful, wonderful thing, all these young college students sitting on the sidewalks days after day, all these people finding ways to get space heaters and hot meals to them. (Note, by the way, I know there are people older than college age participating in this too - good on 'em. This isn't meant to marginalize what they're doing either).
Which made the reaction of New York Mayor Bloomberg particularly interesting to me:
We need the banks, if the banks don’t go out and make loans we will not come out of our economy problems, we will not have jobs. And so anything we can do to responsibly help the banks do that, encourage them to do that is waht we need. I think we spend much too much time worrying about how we got into problems as to how we go forward. [...] They were part of it, but so were Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae and Congress.
I see what Bloomberg is saying, I will not naively say that our entire current financial woes are the result of the Machiavellian schemings of a couple of rich men in pinstripes. The current economic crisis is a systemic problem.
What's more interesting to me was that he said there is one solution to our current problems: the banks need to make big profits, so that they're willing to go out and make loans, and that will make reinvestment and growth opportunities, and get people jobs. This is, I will not argue, one way out of our current crisis (I WOULD argue that it's not necessarily the most sustainable one - banks have been growing in profitability for the last 30 years in a way that sure isn't directly making the average real wealth level of middle and lower class America any higher). What was interesting to me was the assumption inherent in his description, that these protesters were making a stupid, knee-jerk reaction, out of anger and ignorance: "Ah, if only you understood the banking sector as much as I do, kids, then you'd see that you're being childish."
Any time, I think, when you refute someone's opinion with the assumption that they're simply too stupid to know as much as you, there's a fair chance that you're either actively trying to marginalize them, or that you're passively assuming they are less competent than you in some ways.
I see this all the time with young people. I've recently become a manager at work, and have attended a few management training classes, a group in which I was on the lower half of the age spectrum in the group. Probably pretty close to the bottom. One of the points someone brought up in the class was that you just had to work harder to manage the current generation. To paraphrase what he said, kids today are so mollycoddled and spoiled, that they don't understand how to function in an eight hour job, aren't capable of stopping playing long enough to work, don't have the attention span to finish difficult tasks, and haven't been taught to take risks and try new things. Heads bobbed nearly universally. The MySpace generation (yes, their words, not mine) simply hasn't been taught how to be functioning members of society.
Today, Amanda and I went to a book festival, and besides being a wee bit overstimulated (thank you, notebook and a pen, how often you have saved me from loud, busy rooms), I was absolutely plucked in the heartstrings, seeing so many teenagers in one place, again. As you get older, the world repeatedly inundates you with the idea that teenagers are lazy, teenagers are brats, teenagers are selfish, teenagers are know-it-alls. A group of perhaps fifty 12-16 year olds came out at the beginning, in homemade costumes, strung through a crowd with no rehearsal in the hall they performed in, and did a remake of Michael Jackson's "Thriller", choreographed. The whole, painfully long song. I personally am not a Michael Jackson fan, but their choreography? Great, well-practiced, energetic and fun, and filled with sparkling, individual personality. This wasn't the dancing of a bunch of kids quietly obeying the instructions of a wise older teacher who shows them precisely how to move - it was kids who took a framework, and made it their own, every kid a little different, while all still keeping the synchronicity that makes choreography what it is. Lazy, imaginationless drones with no focus? Unwilling to take risks? How can people even say that?
I know, this is something every generation goes through, the process of deciding the next generation down is a lot of worthless heathens who will throw the world away, but dammit, this is my generation, and I don't want it badmouthing, say, my sister's generation, just because it can't quite put its finger on how it works.
And that's what I don't get about Bloomberg. See, his whole thesis is basically this: "Look, kids, when there's a crisis, the banks take a while to get comfortable, and then start returning everything to the status quo, and that's how crises end." He forgets that what he's REALLY saying is 'That's how crises HAVE ended BEFORE.' That's a valid direction to look. Heck the young generation itself, these days, is harking back to the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters of World War II Britain.
But you can't just assume that revolution has nothing to tell you, just because it will make your life a bit easier and tidier if we just do things how they've always been done. The social cohesion, the energy, the heterogeny, the beauty and spirit, and inexperienced fervor that is youth, there's a reason that we have these things. They have a value that isn't one that needs to be condescended to, its one that, sometimes, has to condescend to us, just to get to our tired, stuck little brains, and say, "Wake up! The world can, if you let it, be something else!" In a time when our problems are paralyzing us with fear - terrorism, disasters, environmental decay, poverty and economic change, employment shifts, you name it - isn't that kind of courageous optimism at least more useful than a drudging terror of doing things differently than they've always been done?
Hand on throat and hand on hip,
Skin of gullet, skin of thigh,
Cinching fingers, Angry lips,
Stale submission, choked replies.
Fan blades over souls asunder
Rotate slow in salted air,
Humming blood through leaking laceworks,
Flesh left bruised and flesh left bare.
Sweaty teardrops, gasping mumbles,
Cinching fingers, angry lips,
Snap and tangle, Thump and tumble
Breathless throat and rigid hip.
My children have for a few years now been slowly working through a best of list of literature for children, broken down by age group. My eldest is in a group of books now that has what I found to be a curious choice: John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. Not to say the book is inappropriate for children. Its not, it is, in fact, probably throughout history one of the books children read, depending on the time period and nation. Historical New England comes to mind. Its just that... well, its an allegory. We don't really read allegory anymore - or when we do, its been swallowed almost entirely by the self-help genre.
When Emily Dickinson fell into her final illness (Bright's Disease and its complicatons, most scholars think), she spent it in her tiny bed, in her tiny room, a few feet from the desk where she'd say and copied her poems, and pinned them into fascicles and stuffed the drawers with them. There isn't even, really, a day when you can see her illness began. Practical science, in its current form, has an aversion to the boundless or the gradual. It wishes disease to fit into lab reports. Disease is not always like that - it can bea slow melting towards where death is in its most natural form, more like falling slowly to sleep than being knocked unconscious. There is the period of settling, the period of pondering, going over the day's events, then that strange dreamy half-state where you are half tethered to consciousness, and the tide of it pulls gently, gently, outward into sleep.
Emily had been to a few doctors, over the years. Her eyesight had been failing for a long time, and in fact, she'd been at some risk of going blind earlier in her life, and had had to make an uncomfortable, unsettling trip to the city to stay at a relative's while being treated by an oculist. But, by now, medicine had had its day. She was nursed by her sister, Lavinia. She wrote letter to friends. She slept a great deal. She felt awful. She almost certainly cried, though the record of this sort of thing is understandably scanty, kidney diseases aren't pleasant. She messed her sheets, she sweat a lot, suffered through fevers. And then, one day, in the Spring, she died.
It was in May. Emily loved the springtime, and in Massachussets, May is the crown of spring (though, to be fair, Emily's poetry shows a playful, familiar affection for March). It was warm enough, by then, that the windows would have been opened off and on, probably even more than normal to air the sick room. She would have smelled the dusty florals of the hawthorn hedge at the edge of her property, she would have smelled the rich balsam-pine smells of the trees next door, where her life-long best friend and sister-in-law lived, no doubt anxious to hear the news of her. Its a wet month, there, she may have smelled the rain. She probably, by then, was not seeing a great deal at all. Perhaps the robins came for her, as she'd written about before.
She was dressed in her own bedroom, and a white coffin was brought in to lie her in, set likely on sawhorses downstairs, in the hall. The Dickinson's gardeners, Irish I believe, would likely have been the ones to come and nail it shut. They took it to the library, where they had a short funeral. Her long-time correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, read a poem by a different Emily: Emily Bronte. Of all those in the room, it is ironically possible that he knew her the least. Her sister-in-law wrote an obituary, that mentioned her legendary skills as a gardener.
She specifically asked that the servants, with whom she had a close, personal relationship, carry her out the back door. They crossed a meadow. The grass in it would have been high by then, flecked with wildflowers, particularly buttercups. She lay in the box, her eyes set shut, her hands gently cradling flowers she had carefully requested before her death: heliotrope, lady's slipper, wild wood violets. The scent of the heliotrope, thick and vanilla probably slipped out the interstices of the wood. The grass would have swished against the walls, the buttercups tumbled pollen onto the wood. When they arrive at her plot, the pallbearers would have had the late leftovers, perhaps, of damp about their boots and trousers.
And that was that, they lowered her down, they dropped sod into the hole, and Emily's tiny limbs and white dress would, slowly, slowly begin to dissolve into the earth. I like to believe that someone sang over her. Perhaps it was just the birds.
O, pipe the hymn both clear and loud:
"Come soon, thou golden dream!"
The altar sends the incense up --
Though flesh-smoke feed the stream -
"Come quick, thou light, both clean and bright!"
Though born a crimson gleam.
O pipe it loud! Drown out the sounds
Of the sacrifice's scream.
Bleed out thy scream, O sacrifice,
Thou destined cinder-grey!
The crisp of thee in sinuous stream,
The gleam 'neath an empty vein,
The elegy of a Silver Dream,
Keened out in Bean-sidhe lay:
Bleed out, and silence thou become -
Now comes the break of day!
This morning, I finished reading 'Plain Kate' by Erin Bow, a book that Amanda assigned me for our Lovebirds Challenge, and it has been gnawing me since. I'm very glad I read it, because something about it is bothering me.
Understand, first, it was not a book. It was a pretty good one in fact. There was a few moments that lifted me out of the flow of the story in awkward ways, but not very many, and I'm oversensitive to that, and tend to demand that books be written especially for me, in some ways, especially modern ones. And aside from that, it was a well written book, tightly fairy-taled, in a way that is neither cloying or anachronistic (the two ways I usually find that fairy tales find their downfalls).
But, there was something about it that bothered me. (mild spoiler, I'll avoid the big ones). There is this cat, the main character's cat, who at one point gains the powers of speech, and becomes sort of mentally part human, because it's Kate's greatest wish - that she have a travelling companion. A friend, more succinctly.
Now, first of all, I found it a bit irritating that not 10 pages past this point, where she had been a lone and friendless the whole book, she suddenly falls in with some people with whom she starts to develop friendships. But that's neither here nor there, and only bothered me because it seems like it should have been dramatically ironic and wasn't.
What bothered me was this: her love and friendship with the cat is one of the emotional engines of the book. And yet, the cat isn't real. He is only the way he is, because she wished him to be so. He does not awaken and learn to like her, or grow from the feelings a cat would have to a master to the feelings a friend would develop for a friend, to the point of self-sacrifice. He is simply made, immediately, the Perfect Friend. This is realistic - it's what she wished for, after all, not just a talking cat, but a perfect friend, to stay with her when things become difficult.
The problem with making someone a perfect friend is the same problem, though, that love potions have: they aren't real. Or if they are real, then love and friendship are, after all, meaningless. I was talking to Amanda this morning, and made an analogy: I'm a computer programmer. So, what if I learned how to program emotions into a robot? And what if I programmed a robot, whose main directive was to love me, to be loyal to me, to care about me? I don't mean, to be a slave, just to be - a perfect friend. If I programmed this robot to be that way, would it REALLY be love? What would the feelign I felt back be? In a sense, Kate's cat isn't it's own being at all - it's just a piece of Kate. Her wish, embedded into another living thing through no will of that other thing's.
But then, what difference does that make, really? At some level, after all, all love is a complex of neurons and memories, right? An instinct. We love, because we have evolved into lovers, because love has proven to be the best way to survive. I'm not a snob about this idea, I don't think that's demeaning to the human spirit, or anyhting, that it makes us less. But, it does beg the question - if I put you to sleep, and then constructed love in your brain, when you awoke, would that love be less real than a love that developed on it's own? In a sense, it's almost like cloning - most of us have a gut level reaction of unnaturalness, when we consider the idea of producing a child without the natural process of human inter-fertilization, apart from any of the moral qualms surrounding how the technology might be used we don't like the idea of the technology, of itself. But why? If an identical child is produced one way versus another, is ther eREALLY a difference? Or isn't there? Mental Illness is another example - if someone is mentally ill, than some of their emotions are not the byproducts of the normal activity of their mind, but rather they are symptoms of an external disease. If someone is furious only because they need medicine, are they any less furious? Does their fury 'matter less'?
I can have this whole argument, but you'll notice, I'm not convinced by it, and I simply don't know why. The idea of that cat being a produced instead of a natural friend truly bothers me. To produce consciousness, that DOESN'T bother me - I do not, for instnace, have the same gut level fear of the idea of artificial intelligence. But emotion does, and I can't quite pinpoint why. It draws into something bigger, something that has to do with the purpose of life itself - in the end, after all, the material effects of life are irrelevant, right? Things don't matter, at the end, its only, as so many people have said, the experiences we've had, the memories we've shared, the love we've given and recieved. What if we only feel that this love was given? Does that make a difference? If there were no way of knowing, if it could be given equitably, if we could make it so every human on earth could receive the gift of memories and emotions, and if we could irrefutbaly show that this, in the end, would let every person mentally have lived the life they wish they could have lived, would that be wrong? And if it IS wrong, why? Is it simply because its unnatural? Is it because we would be foolish with it, and create lives that don't have any regret in them? Is it because it would be selfish, removing the reality of anything done for someone else? It's something else, something, because even if it were possible to remove all these things, it would be wrong. I do not want to be loved, I want to... have lived a love. And the idea of simple accepting the validity of the other option really bothered me.
Sometime between the years 181 and 183 BC, in Libyssa (the city now known as Gebze on the entrance to the Black Sea), there was an old Greek palace. Libyssa was a city in the now long forgot kingdom of Bithynia (interesting, also, in the later life of Mithridates, another fascinating character), which at that time, was wrapping up a long war with the nearby kingdom of Pergamum, an ally of the Roman Empire. The war was a difficult one, and in those days, for most countries, there was no standing army of any substance, so for professional soldiers, the king, Prusias, had turned for help to mercenaries, including a man who, though in the winter of his life, was without a doubt then (and in many ways still today) the most famous military leader of all time - Hannibal Barca, the general of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War.
On May 28 of 1453, the Church of Hagia Sophia in the City of Constantinople held its last mass. The city, in it's final days, was torn by internal religious divisions. Much of the mercantile and military population of the city were Italian, particularly Venetian and Genovese. Some of the native Byzantine population were supporters of a union with the Western church. Others, particularly the monks and priests of the city, were in support of a continued orthdoxy to creed of what we now call the Greek Orthodox church. These divisions were not minor theological squabbles, but had shaped the countours of Byzantine history, and in fact, were in part responsible for its downfall the next day. But that night, there was one final mass - it was a mass praying for a miracle. The walls of the city were broken beyond repair after being patched, repatched, and rebuilt innumerable times throughout the long siege of the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II, the people of the city were hopelessly outnumbered, and the fighting had ceased only because of the encroaching darkness. The mass, for that one night was spoken in Greek and in Latin, the intercessory prayers begged god's mercy and blessing on the Pope in Rome, the Emperor in Constantinople, and the Patriarch of Constantinople. And all the schismatic groups prayed together, that night.
Darning Darning, yarn into
The foot-sorry wear of a sock,
Little fingers push and pull
As the chair below me rocks.
Somewhere, with trees with blossom-red leaves,
And with wind like a soror's hands,
Somewhere, far off distant thought
In a far-off distant land.
The warp and woof of the new-darned rough
With the threadbare cloth interlocked,
The warp and woof pulls thick and thin
As the chair below me rocks.
Somewhere, with clouds of dust-soft moths
And with love seeped in with the sand,
Somewhere, far off distant thought
In a far-off distant land.
(Image from Amazing_podgirl)
Good god, I forgot what it's like to read a book where each page takes less than 15 minutes! It feels strange to be in the realm of books one can read as an activity instead of a journey. Not that I mean I regret Ulysses - just sometimes it's nice to simply take a day-trip to the park, rather than hiking the entire Appalachian Trail.
If you haven't read What Was She Thinking (also called Notes on a Scandal, after the title of the movie it inspired), or seen the movie, there will be spoilers in these thoughts, because I'm really not sure where to end before ruining any surprises. So, now then, only us spoiled or spoilable folks left? Alright, then...
The very first page of the book presents for us what appears to be an easily parsed framework for interpreting Sheba, the nominal heroine of the book: she is a woman who has had an illicit affair with a 15 year old boy. She has been caught. It's a nasty business. The news has introduced this particular character type, in the real world more than once (seemingly every time it happens), and in the beginning, there is a natural tendency, I think to assume that any further story will be simply the salacious details. The narrator, Barbara (in many senses, I think, the true protagonist of the novel), is much more of a mystery - she's older. She's loyal to this woman who has done something impardonable. She is a bit cold and bitter.
By the end of the book, Barbara has done her very best to show us that Sheba is a faulty, essentially non-evil woman who committed a horrible mistake. One can (if one wishes) pity her, sympathize with her. On the other hand, unwittingly, Barbara reveals herself to be, as most people I know describe her, very creepy. Sheba let her hormones overtake her. Barbara seems to have something very distrubing wrong with her.
The interesting thing to me is this: Barbara, I think, one knows fairly well by the end of the book, and one despises her. Sheba, who one is given the opportunity to pity, one knows in many ways LESS than they did on the first page of the book. The narrator is clearly not terrifically reliable, and obviously sees Sheba in a way that suits the fantasies she needs to uphold for herself - how are we to trust that anything she says really accurately reflects on Sheba's character? Take, for a moment, the mere facts apart from the very artfully applied layers of interpretation, and one has learned very little by the end of the book, really - some details of Sheba's family life. A rough timeline of how the affair went. A highly coloured personal account of some of the day to days of the end of the affair. A frankly unreliable account of second hand knowledge that we don't know if it's even accurate. The image of Barbara, is, inadvertently, more or less an honest one. The image of Sheba is a more or less dishonest, or at least dubious, one. And it's much easier to like Sheba than Barbara.
This particularly caught my eye because the way Barbara details her life reminded me in some ways of Ulysses (sorry, I know). Barbara, perhaps because she lives alone and has no particular center or direction to her life outside of Sheba, is left, in between the periods in which she is merely reinterpreting Sheba's life, describing her life in very exacting detail. By the end, one knows how Barbara gets dressed, how she feeds the cat, the manner of cook she is, the way she keeps her bedroom and living room, her personal grooming habits, the way she sleeps even. Bloom's journey through Dublin is told in the same exacting detail (we were not, perhaps, left with a description of how Ms Barbara goes to the bathroom - but she did comment on the menstrual habits of her coworkers, so I think this was more an issue of space and first person narration than any sort of actual fastidiousness). And I've heard more than one person who read Ulysses mention how surprised they were at how much they disliked Bloom, and in much the same way that one dislikes Barbara - he's a little off, a little bit disturbing. Revolting.
In many novels one gains a certain intimacy with the characters, and understand please that the comments Im about to offer are not belittling that. But most of that intimacy is only with their inner selves - in some sense I think this is what we turn to literature for, to look at someone and be able to see something more 'real' than the everyday. Joyce turned this around and presented the everyday as the framework of the epic, and so I think that it's easy to look at his characters and think 'how disgusting', because one must see all the detritus of their daily thought patterns. I daresay that many of our hero's thought patterns would be equally ugly if we took them in unexpurgated. In part, I think this is the problem with living in Barbara's everyday world - familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt (or horror, or disgust).
I am not everyone I know, I'm only me, but I will say that a tepid toe dipped deep in the stream of my consciousness would be equally loathsome. I say this as impassively as I can. I think any number of ugly, unpleasant things, I'm plagued by a discordant, disturbing mishmash of non-cohesive patterns of internal life, most of them worn deep enoguh that the groove has gone smooth with time. This isn't, I don't think, because I'm deeply secretive - I try to fairly honest and forthcoming (not that I always have in my life). It's simply that writing about one's self naturally condenses identity into something cohesive. Maybe this is a sort of innate dishonesty, for my own benefit - I need to believe there is a self to build an identity around, instead of a raucous blend of things, most of which should be ignored or suppressed in order to function in the world. I don't know, I wonder sometimes if the feeling is more universal, if perhaps many or most of us have internal selves that stoke at a fire of contradictions.
There are two points to this. In some ways, it is a simple one: simply that knowing a person might tell us things about them we might not be glad we learned, and that we should, thus, take our knowing with a grain of salt - not becaus what we know is necessarily untrue, but because it is confusing to know a person intimately that way. The everyday has a way of bringing up the tics and highlighting them, leaving us blind, ironically, to the virtues of a person - which ironically intensifies the tics in our subject themselves, and declines the influence of virtue. Theory of PErsonality Relativity, I guess.
The other point, though, is I think it's interesting that the repulsive Barbara is, in fact, a writer herself - her manner of writingis not simply narrative, it's 'writerly' - complex, beautiful, very funny at times, poignant at others. She is not a diarist, but a novelist. And what's interesting about that to me is that she is making a novel of Sheba. The difference between the book and a real novel is simply that the ACTUAL author works so hard to see the machinations of the false author in producing the false account of the protagonist - we see, in essence, the making up of a hero from scratch, from the eyes of the novelist, without her explicit awareness of the revelation. Which makes one turn back for a moment to all the heroes in all the other novels they've seen created. Jane Eyre, for instance - it's difficult in a moment of clarity not to see how much Bronte needed her to be a hero. Or Stephen Dedalus. Or any of a thousand others. Authors write heroes, as often as not, because they need the validation of seeing someone else worship their illusions.
I don't mean this as a dig against literature - clearly I'm not opposed to Jane Eyre or Ulysses. I think that in truth of truths, though, there is no 'true portrait' of anyone. To make others feel for a character, one must describe the character artfully, art implies passion, and passion, by definition, precludes dispassionate honesty. I'm not sure it's even really a 'warning' per se. In some sense, I will admit, I believe that this lack of clarity is wonderful, because when you really look at a person, you're not looking for a catalog of their attributes - a catalog of attributes, after all, is the whole problem with knowing someone to intimately. You're looking for a story, for someone to connect little cohesive webs that let you wrap your mind around a person. Those webs can't be complete images of a person, of course - a person is made of the paints the web stretches between, not of the threads that you actually see. But something like the way an artist will use a color that is absent in nature to produce an illusion that's realistic, this sort of skewed portrayal can be far more 'honest', in some senses, than a clinical description
It's late in the evening of St. Patrick's. What a strange holiday it is, here in the states! I was at work today, and heard a tongue in cheek conversation in which someone stated that they don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day, because they don't drink, and someone else who followed up by saying they didn't understand why we celebrated St. Patrick's anyway - why not just have a 'British People Day'? (a slight shudder chased my spine for the Irish of the world on that one) I don't know why we do - or I do know why we STARTED to, but let's start there.
Today is my favorite person's birthday! We actually alll really wanted pizza yesterday, so we did a party and presents a WEE bit early, but still - HAPPY BIRTHDAY AMANDA! Go visit her over at the Zen Leaf and wish her a happy birthday.
Otherwise, sorry to have been missing the last two weeks. Will start catching up tomorrow if possible.
Happy Birthday, jewel of my heart! :)
More than one description of Joyce - and particularly the one I'm reading by Declan Kiberd - focus on Ulysses as a glorification of the human spirit, a sort of paean to real people in parallel to the paeans to idealized men that were to be found in books like, well, The Odyssey. (One could have some strong words of difference about whether Odysseus is an idealized man, of course. Perhaps that's the point). Stephen is a normal man attempting to be an idealized man, and in many way, Bloom is simply a normal man trying to be what he is.
This sort of story is a difficult one to grapple on to, of course. IT is, in many ways, the biggest sacrilege in the book - our culture, through a thousand ways, builds itself around the idea that all of us should be struggling to move up from our current position. This is the definition of the American dream, and while slightly different historically, was certainly at least the stuff of fairy tales. Great souls rise above their circumstances, the words say, and become great through sheer force of will. I don't necessarily disagree with this, I do sometimes wonder at the teaching that is inextricably attached as a verso - that those who do not struggle towards our, frankly narrow, definition greatness have failed, wasted their lives. Normalcy is mediocrity - or in an odd, twist of fate, even sub-normalcy. People who are not 'smart' are 'stupid'. People who are not 'driven' are 'lazy'.
I don't think this is the disease, per se, I think, rather, that it is a symptom. I don't know that Bloom (or necessarily even Joyce?) would agree, but reading sections four through six, where Bloom is introduced, the power he has in my eyes is that he is never struggling for primacy. The person who need not struggle for greatness is a pretty common trope, but usually this is on, say, the Mr. Miyagi vein of heroism : one has attained such mastery that struggle is no longer necessary (I will interject here as a side note that I remain dubious that this state exists in real life). Bloom, on the other hand, simply seems apart from greatness - he sees people struggling for it, just as he sees, say religion, but in both cases, he simply watches from afar. I find this, in my own brain, inconceivable, but I so WISH I didn't.
In a sense, though, this is also the troubling aspect of Joyce - Bloom is, decidedly, not great. He is not an ideal (I think Kiberd sometimes wishes to make him one, but I think Joyce is fairly realistic about his heroes limitations). This is both the horrifying and fascinating side of Joyce. Modern stories I have read frequently have these nasty, grey-moraled heroes, but one is supposed to either bitterly accept that this is the best we can get, or roll our eyes at the awful people that sit behind the masks we worship, or simply to laugh at the vanity of human pursuit of greatness. With Joyce, there is no irony, really, in his Bloom. Bloom is, simply, who he is. And so when Joyce makes him the hero of the novel, and plots his life as a parallel of the Odyssey, it's not to mock the Odyssey, and it's not to mock Bloom. Bloom is the bona fide hero. Which puts me, as a reader in an uncomfortable position. I want to, at some level, force Bloom to start 'acting heroic', I want to have a reason to admire him. And then, I'm reminded, this is the HARD work, this is the work of actually looking to discover what basic human dignity is. It's very easy to find dignity in the classic hero (though sometimes easy to find flaws as well). I would argue that it is often even fairly easy to find dignity in the extremes that are held up as the laboratories of dignity: poverty has a rich, powerful dignity much like heroism, even crime can have dignity. Homeless people in dire suffering or starving masses in third world countries, we have learned as a society, by and large, to look for dignity here (though not necessarily to do anyhting about it, sadly, or to go looking for it). But normal, bourgeois humanity, the lifeblood of most of our day to day interactions, we have been taught is low, callous, cultureless, personalityless. A middle class advertising man in early 19th century Dublin had the same totemic soullessness in some ways that a suburban soccer mom has in a hip, trendy book today. And we ARE in love with talking about the soullessness of 'normal' people - American Beauty, the middle section of The Hours, Pleasantville, even kid's movies like Over the Hedge make no bones about making this broad generalization, for instance.
But, that's just it - this is the sort of person Bloom is, on the outside (and in some ways, inside) level - a completely unromantic hero, undistinguished, unspecial, unimportant. If he were alive today, he'd work a vaguely roled job in HR or Marketing, maybe lower middle management in some soulless corporation (see how easy it is to say that?) and live in a little McHouse in the burbs of a mid-sized city, sometimes going in to see a show, but mostly just (somewhat awkwardly) talking to his fellows about the latest action flick, ogling girls at the office, and driving his SUV home at the end of the day. But, none of this makes him less human (even though I do love movies like the middle section of the Hours, and think there's a lesson there, too). None of this makes him less deserving of human dignity - and he does not have to break that mold to merit dignity. The protagonist in 'Fight Club' is a human being, and deserves our respect as such -- but so did his boss, or the spineless coworkers he left behind (Fight Club, in some ways (and I think in some ways purposefully) actually has a great deal to say about this demonization of the mundane).
And this is what's troubling. This is what, at some level, is the deeper part of the complaints about having to read a scene where he's sitting down for his morning poop, or worrying about the soap that he left in his hip pocket that's jabbing into him, while simultaneously not wanting to be seen moving it. Yes, these things are ridiculous. They're also part of what being human is. But it's harder than one would expect to keep that in mind while reading. At least for me - hey, I was raised on Victor Hugo, remember?
So, I love my wife, and it's Valentine's Day. And I thought, man, what should I post? It's very hard to know. I mean I could have serenaded her, but all the songs I know are musicals, and Amanda doesn't like them. I could write a poem? Sometimes that can turn out bad. And my poems can have a mixed message in them, I'm afraid...
Maybe I could enlist the help of the Lord of the Underworld?
No... no, that's a really bad idea.
Posted by Jason Gignac at 21:16
Before I get into this post, oh my friends, I must apologize ahead of time. I'm currently reading three different books: Ulysses, Ulysses Annotated (a book of annotations on the text of Ulysses), and Ulysses and Us (a book discussing why and how Ulysses is intended for the common man, instead of intellectual highbrows) I blame this on my friends who have organized Jousting With Joyce this month. But I'm having a LOT of fun. I read the book a few years ago, and I will not link to the review - it was so awful that it's the only review I've ever actually gone back and deleted content from. But I'm understanding it much better the second time. So, the short of it is: for the next month and a half, much of this channel will be devoted to Ulysses. Which I know makes some of us cringe in terror or hatred. So, I'm sorry.But that's just the way it is.
So, before we began the book, Jill over at Fizzy Thoughts mentioned something interesting about chapter 3 of Ulysses, a chapter which Joyce titled, after the fact, Proteus - namely that this is the chapter that most people turn away at and never finish the book. And I will confess now, the first time I read Ulysses, this chapter took me, I kid you not, a month and a half. For fifteen pages. And I didn't understand a thing in it.
Well, that's not really true. I did understand something: I understood that the chapter was in stream of consciousness, and that the consciousness being streamed was confusing and... eh... just a little obnoxious. Pretentious, snotty, and a little full of itself. Declan Kiberd in Ulysses and Us admits this up front:
Many readers drop Ulysses at this point, finding themselves unable to keep up with Stephen's remorseless and obscure pedantry...Yeah, that pretty much gives my initial feeling of the chapter. It's what he says afterwards that really captures how I felt reading it the second time:
...but the truth is that Joyce is laughing at the pitiful pretentiousness of the youth he once was. Nobody could understand all that Stephen says or thinks. Nobody could take all of his ideas with utter seriousness.No, seriously. The closing words of the chapter, dramatic and stirring:
Behind. Perhaps there is someone. He turned his face over a shoulder, rere regardant. Moving through the air high spars of a threemaster, her sails brailed up on the crosstrees, homing, upstream, silently moving, a silent ship.The 'behind, perhaps there is someone'? It's because Stephen just picked his nose and wiped it on a rock because he doesn't have a handkerchief, and he's afraid someone may have caught him at it. So, he looks over his shoulder, to see the great silent ship, deep and powerful symbol of the child Telemachus waiting for a father to come home who he has never met, silent and forboding, is all because he didn't want someone to catch him picking his nose.
This may seem facetious, or pretentious in and of itself, to write some grand sweeping complex chapter that is essentially about a stupid college kid wandering along the beach and killing time for an hour. Maybe it is, but I don't think so. It would have been much easier to just write a snarky satire of a chapter, talking about how stupid college kids are. The power of James Joyce is that he doesn't do this - instead he simply records what it feels like to be that person. There are parts of the mind that just find this bewildering, or course, let me address that first. In some sense, like Kiberd said, it is meant to be confusing. Part of Stephen's problem is his education. If you took this chapter apart, probably half of it would be a quote, an allusion, a lampoon, or a paraphrase of the words of someone else, and Joyce argues (in a different way in the previous chapter) that education, sometimes, aims for htis goal: to make people who are good at spouting at the correct bit of information at the correct time. It's a problem that is different now from Joyce's time, where rote learning was a huge measure of academic prowess, but it is a bigger problem now, perhaps, in our time when education's purpose has been narrowed to the point where it's largely presented as nothing more than a way to ensure you get a good job someday. Even so, though, part of the problem is, I would argue, intrinsic to this sort of free association thought. Some of the things in Stephen's mind are not academic esoterica: there's lyrics to pub ditties and popular songs, there's references to Hamlet in plenty, which isn't exactly obscure, there's references to the CAtholic Mass, which most of the people around Stephen would have been intimately familiar with. The problem is, anytime you enter someone else's mind, you will find that there are places foreign to you. This is perhaps amplified by the difference in time and space between Stephen and us, and by the differences in our respective educations. But at the same time I think it's partly simply the uncrossable chasm between two souls, the fact that we can peek inside someone else's head, but never truly climb in.
Apart from the bewildering nature of Stephen's head, though, there is the pretentiousness of it. And make no mistake, it is a chapter, stuffed to the gills, with pretentious. It is very easy to dislike Stephen, here. But at the same time, I don't think that is Joyce's point - in fact, I think it says a lot about us as readers, willing to seek out clues about whether to like or dislike a person so easily. Every person is a person at some level. Stephen is young, he makes mistakes, he can be annoying, but he's a person, and in the midst of all his wandering, there are some real, powerful, and beautiful emotions. The problem is that he does not how to pick them out of the mire. He doesn't realize that as much of the beauty comes in the 'low' as the 'high' parts of his thought, that his work scribbling a poem is far less powerful and human than his yearning for someone to love him as he thinks about the shopgirl he saw the day before, or the brooding loneliness he feels as he watches the dog running along the beach. Stephen is, simply, who he is. One may dislike him, but to hate him, that takes a special force. It is easy for me to hate some characters, because there are characters. I would present that authors construct them so that they can be hated or loved, as often as not. But Stephen is not a character in the same sense - to hate him is to hate a human - a ficitonal one, yes, but we do not have the luxury in Ulysses of having simlpy a hateable side of a person before us. If we are to love or hate anyone in Ulysses, we must hate them the way we would hate another person - which reflects and teaches the reader something about how it is that they really DO love and hate, teaches them where the line lies for them.
The last week of listening to the popular uprisings in Egypt has been deeply stirring for me. As a very uneducated but passionate historian of sorts, revolution has always drawn me to it: the Russian, the French, the American, the Haitian, even the English Civil War, in a different sort of way. There is something to a people being stirred up into something that rash that makes me feel a sort of clumsy kinship.
In essence, said Jefferson, we cannot let the slaves go, because we need them to be slaves, even if that's wrong. The tragedy of this statement, of course, is that it is so easy to say when you live in a home where your luxury is made possible by the hands that you keep enslaved beneath you. Perhaps, Jefferson would argue, he was a good master and treated his slaves as best he could, but then if one had told him that George had meant to be a virtuous king this would have made nary a different in whether he was a tyrant. Keeping slavery extant for another 80 years after the Revolution - and turning a blind eye to what amounted often to de facto slavery for African American through much of the rest of American history - is not morally justifiable, it's simply politically and economically expedient."But as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
Take a look, now, at our situation today. The biggest recipients of American foreign aid (at least the last time I heard the statistics) are: Israel, and Egypt. Egypt, in large part, because it maintains an alliance with Israel. This is a debatable policy, in and of itself, but even more troubling when one considers that through most of the time in which we gave this aid, we gave it to the government of a despotic dictator. A few years ago, when we went to war in Iraq, there were three basic purposes floated for the war: to prevent Saddam Hussein from getting weapons of mass destruction, to destroy a base for Al Qaida and other militant terrorist groups, and to spread democracy in the Middle East. The first two of these reasons have been more or less debunked - Hussein didn't have any real weapons development anymore, and being a secularist, Al-Qaida was none too fond of Hussein. The third... is a trickier wicket. If we WERE, then, fighting an entire war to spread democracy, assert that human beings have an inalienable right to self-determination, then why is our response to Egypt so muted as a government? Shouldn't this be a moment for celebration, and for assisting our like-minded brothers and sisters? For using the ENORMOUS levers we have in Egypt - our foreign aid, for instance - to help those who are fighting for the cause of liberty?
Instead, our government is troubled, because when democracy DOES emerge, it's almost guaranteed that a considerable mass of the Egyptian people will vote for an Islamist party, changing the chemistry of our relationships in the region. Islamist parties are, generally, not terrifically fond of the United States, or of our ally, Israel. And after all, we have every right to look after our own interests. We cannot continue to work for good in the world if we lose the position we have in the world, now, can we?
Take a step back, for a moment, to the abolitionists. There was considerable breadth and variety in the abolitionist movement, but a significant portion of the movement was directly inspired by a fiery, fundamentalist Christian doctrine, one which, quite frankly, made government uncomfortable. Abolitionists, in fact, were not only frequently seen as terrorists, but did, in fact, commit acts that we would now consider terrorism: John Brown's raid, for instance, or the fighting funded in Bloody Kansas. Do I think this was right? I don't know. I cannot say. I can't damn them for it. Violence is awful, bloody, horrible stuff. But then, so was the violence being enacted on 6 million black men women and children. Was the plight of those people less cause for revolt than the plight of the Americans in 1776, who suffered from being overtaxed? I don't mean to trivialize the Revolutionary war, but not being able to send a representative to the parliament isn't quite the same as being a slave.
Which brings one back to today. Are the people of Egypt influenced by Islam? Certainly. Is the Muslim Brotherhood and it's Islamist agenda one of the inspirations for these protests. More than likely. But to argue that the people of Egypt should keep their dictator, or change on his timetable, is to argue that government is best when it is 'of the people, by the people, for the people, unless the people do not want what we think we should', which isn't a terribly moral high ground to take. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take over, could very bad things happen? Perhaps - although I think that this is partly just xenophobia. One is reminded of the French Revolution, when an angry and miserable French people let themselves be let into the monstrosities of the Reign of Terror. At the same time, it's worth mentioning that the French were isolated by all of the rest of the nations of Europe, an action that probably had a good deal to do with why the people were willing to turn to such savage shepherds.