Monday, October 10, 2011

The Utility of Ink

God helps those who help themselves.” Benjamin Franklin appends to this maxim in the 1757 edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac. This theme seems to pervade Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe. For this reason and many others, Defoe’s novel can be used as an instructive discourse as Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposes in Emile. Certainly, Robinson Crusoe has the ability to educate children regarding such issues as pragmatism, resourcefulness, and independence.

The importance of pragmatism is soon made evident along Crusoe’s journey. The protagonist is initially an unfocused wayward fellow: “Being the third son of the family, and not bred to any trade, my head began to be filled very early with rambling thoughts” (5). He soon learns that the mind works best when confined to the realm of practical concerns. When attempting to explain the devil’s existence to Friday, a Caribbean native and cannibal, Crusoe is soon bombarded with questions as to why God does not simply kill the devil or why an all-merciful God does not simply forgive everyone, including the devil. Confused by what he initially considers to be instinctive reasoning, Crusoe aborts the discussion before things get too complicated. He later remarks, “As to all the disputes, wranglings, strife and contention which has happened in the world about religion, whether niceties in doctrines or schemes of church government, they were all perfectly useless to us” (185). Once Crusoe veers away from controversial philosophical topics of discussion and focuses on matters of survival that directly impact his existence, his relationship with Friday returns to its original, healthy state. Knowledge about raising crops will serve Crusoe and his companions far better than speculation about the nature of heaven and hell. Rousseau explains, “The surest way of rising above prejudice and ordering one’s opinions according to the real relations of things is to put oneself in the place of a solitary man, and to judge everything as he would, having regard to its particular utility” (Rousseau). Crusoe’s increasing utilitarianism and resourcefulness as the novel progresses makes manifest his growing realization of the importance of pragmatic thought, especially in such a situation as he finds himself.

Defoe’s novel aims to celebrate every man’s ability to not only focus his mind but also perfect his skill through perseverance. While a later, revolution-minded generation of the eighteenth century would be proclaiming that all men have been endowed with such inalienable rights as life, liberty, and property, Defoe takes a much more fundamental stance: that all human beings have the ability to create. By exercising this ability, humans may attain some degree of self-sustenance. The fact that Crusoe is not remarkably intelligent or gifted is of significant importance; Defoe wants to emphasize that anyone, regardless of his station in life, may work diligently and achieve desired means as a result. Robinson Crusoe “shows, how, by labouring with one’s own hands, one may secure independence, and open for one’s self many sources of health and amusement” (Beattie). Defoe successfully persuades his audience that ordinary people from modest means can overcome adversity and perform feats of self-sufficiency that were scarce considered possible. Defoe’s novel attests to the ability of every man to discipline his mind, and as a consequence, master his trade. Rousseau expounds, “The child, when urged to equip himself for the island, will be keener to learn than the master to teach him. He will want to know everything useful, and nothing else; you will no longer have to guide him, only to restrain him” (Rousseau).

Defoe places particular importance on the virtue of persistence. Throughout the novel, repeated effort breeds success, and success breeds bigger dreams and goals. “And now indeed my stock of corn increasing, I really wanted to build my barns bigger. I wanted a place to lay it up in, for the increase of the corn now yielded me so much that I had of the barley about twenty bushels, and of the rice as much or more” (105). The process of trial-and-error is also emphasized: “After this experiment I need not say that I wanted no sort of earthenware for my use” (103). Failure is not a dead end, but an opportunity for the mind to learn how to succeed. After constructing a boat that is too large to get off land and into the sea, Crusoe reflects, “I was obliged to let it lie where it was, as a memorandum to teach me to be wiser next time” (115). A wiser Crusoe later builds a more suitable boat. For all its truths concerning the nature of hard labor, diligence, and other core values, Robinson Crusoe serves as a singular entity from which children may derive important life lessons, as Rousseau suggests.

Works Cited

Beattie, James. “On Fable and Romance.” Dissertations Moral and Critical. W. Strahan, 1783. 505- 574. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Michelle Lee and Deborah J. Morad. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Sep. 2011.

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Print.

Rousseau, Jacques. “Rousseau on ‘Robinson Crusoe’.” Defoe: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Pat Rogers. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972. 52-54. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Michelle Lee and Deborah J. Morad. Vol. 61. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. Literature Resource Center. Web. 5 Sep. 2011.

Friday, April 8, 2011

From Here to Eternity, Blogging Invisible Man, D.C. al coda

The narrator rejects Ras the Exhorter’s philosophy simply because it contradicts the ideology of the Brotherhood. He is still blind to the reality that he is merely a tool in a large, elaborate scheme. Ellison makes Ras’s philosophy attractive because Ras indeed advocates an identity founded upon the self, an identity that is independent of the views of others. However, Ras’s militancy makes his philosophy less attractive, for he means to achieve his goal through violence and vengeance. Because Ras spares the invisible man as a result of common skin color, Ras is further seen as understanding and justified despite his violent undertakings.
Brother Tarp chooses the narrator to be the recipient of his chain link because he hopes to encourage the invisible man and remind him about what the Brotherhood is really fighting for. The invisible man figures, “Something, perhaps, like a man passing on to his son his own father’s watch, which the son accepted not because he wanted the old-fashioned timepiece for itself, but because of the overtones of unstated seriousness and solemnity of the paternal gesture which at once joined him with his ancestors, marked a high point of his present, and promised a concreteness to his nebulous and chaotic future.” In other words, Brother Tarp felt a familial connection with the invisible man and desired to motivate him to keep his head up and continue his good work at a time when the narrator felt lost and frightened. By his gesture, Tarp reminds the narrator to never become complacent and take freedom for granted.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fragments of Identity

Living in the western world, the culture, the traditions of this hemisphere are forced upon me. I am compelled to encounter all that this way of life has to offer if not accept it without question. I see them for who they are, but they cannot see me. They are blinded, and I am invisible. They have not set foot in my country, stood on the streets of Calcutta and inhaled the fragrant sandalwood and smoggy exhaust, or witnessed the otherwise widely distorted rituals of my land. For all I know, they still view my people with an attitude of "benevolent assimilation," hiding under the pretense of "civilization." Ellison's invisible man once remarked, "Why, if they follow this conformity business they'll end up by forcing me, an invisible man, to become white, which is not a color but the lack of one. Must I strive toward colorlessness?" Physics would say otherwise. The absence of any red, green, and blue light yields black, and 255 pixels of each color produces...white. Common sense would suggest the opposite. Regardless, black is beautiful. But what is to be made of the contradiction? Perhaps, it all trails back to the debate between science, logic, and reason vs. intuition, instinct, and imagination. Which set of entities can we trust, rely and depend upon? What constitutes illusion anyway? Could nirvana, moksha, samsara be considered illusion simply because it rests upon the idea of rejecting the material world? Is this truly delusion or an appeal to a higher way of thinking, living, being? Trying to sum up humanity, with its inherent dichotomies, still seems an impossibility. If the realization of humanity be the prerequisite for self-discovery and identity, perhaps the entire effort is a gedankenexperiment. Maybe the whole quest for self-actualization is just another ploy to turn humans into perpetual motion machines, to "keep those Negroes running--but in their same old place." Perhaps it's just a series of endless circles, designed to keep us ignorant of the futility and vanity of all our endeavors, no matter how earnest or noble. Or maybe I just think too much. Even the invisible man eventually gave up his habitual manhole of a dwelling...perhaps he fell into a rut, like Thoreau. "I've given up on giving up slowly; I'm blending in so you won't even know me apart from this whole world that shares my fate...I'm stuck inside this rut that I fell into by mistake...I'm begging you to be my escape."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Monster Mosaic Project

Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, Frankenstein, addresses many themes. Central to the novel is the power of knowledge to wreak depravity among both man and monster. For Victor Frankenstein, the knowledge that he is responsible for the end fates of William, Justine, Elizabeth, and Clerval tortures him and fills him with angst. For the creature, the acquirement of knowledge exacerbates his feelings of loneliness and alienation from society. Both Victor Frankenstein and the creature are depraved as a result of the knowledge they acquire.

Evidence of Frankenstein’s depravity is made manifest in his inability to receive solace from nature’s beauty and serenity. He eventually compares himself to a “blasted tree.” In the same way that a blasted tree is split down the middle and unable to register sensation, Victor can no longer experience joy in the company of others or find solace in nature's beauty and serenity. Now, the "desolate and appalling landscape" of Scotland merely serves to mirror the desolation and revulsion within his heart. Both Frankenstein and the creature realize that previous sources of ecstasy and intrigue no longer suffice. Books and learning initially piqued the creature's curiosity, but now nothing can alleviate the creature's suffering save the fulfillment of his wish for a companion. In addition, Victor remarks that a "bolt" has entered his soul, demonstrating the inextricable intertwinement of Frankenstein and his creation, for the creature was brought to life with the aid of lightning. Both beings are separated from humanity by an "insurmountable barrier." For Frankenstein, that barrier is his regret and remorse over not only his action of creating the monster but also the pernicious actions of the creature, which result in the deaths of his loved ones. For the creature, the most prominent barrier is his outward appearance, which causes all those who come into contact with him to shrink back in fear, terror, and disgust. All the creature's attempts to help others and join a community are rebuffed or rejected, and these reactions contribute to the creature’s isolation and loneliness. The creature’s isolation fuels his anger and his intense desire for vengeance, which contributes to his depravity.

The focus of my mosaic is a single dewdrop tear. For Frankenstein, this dewdrop represents his thirst for knowledge, which eventually leads to his depraved condition; for the creature, the teardrop is symbolic of the loneliness and isolation that he feels as a result of the knowledge he acquires. The word “outsider” is a testament to their shared status as foreigners, outcasts, strangers in society. The inside of the teardrop represents Frankenstein’s world; it contains Garden of Eden imagery, books, and images of nature. The Garden of Eden imagery is a testament to Frankenstein’s status as a fallen man. One of the two books, The Northern Clemency, is symbolic of Frankenstein’s guilt, which arises as a result of the monster’s actions against mankind, and his overwhelming desire for absolution while the other, The Wife, is symbolic of how Elizabeth was lost to the monster’s impetuous deeds. Nature fills Victor’s section of the teardrop because nature was initially his only source of solace, but as he becomes more depraved and wretched, even this comfort leaves him disconsolate. The outside of the teardrop is the creature’s half because he is able to observe society while residing in a hovel rather than engage and participate in the company of others. Frankenstein’s part of the teardrop contains people that symbolize the society that the creature can watch but not be a part of. His portion of the teardrop includes books and the image of a figure burying his head in his arms to symbolize how the gaining of knowledge further alienates the creature from society. Scenes of nature are encompassed in the creature’s portion of the teardrop as well, because nature nurtures the monster; nature is his permanent dwelling.

"Terence, This is Stupid Stuff"

“Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” the penultimate poem (number LXII) in A.E. Housman’s 1896 collection, A Shropshire Lad, can be interpreted as a defense of depressing poetry. The poem consists of rhyming couplets with eight beats per line, making the meter iambic quatrameter, which is common for narratives. The poem shifts in setting from Shropshire to Burton to Ludlow to Pontus and also contains shifts in time from modern-day to memory/flashback to history. The first section consists of a complaint addressed to Terence about the gloomy nature of his subject matter and a request for livelier, more jovial poetry. Terence Hearsay, the supposed narrator of the poem, may possibly be a reference to the Roman playwright Publius Terentius After. The first stanza, an evaluation of Terence’s poetry, ridicules the way poets can take a single-syllable word and make it a two-syllable word out of metrical necessity by using the phrase “hornéd head.” Synecdoche is also satirized, for the cow’s head is described as “sleeping” rather than the entire cow. Furthermore, the delayed apposition of “it” and “the hornéd head” is another poetic manipulation as is the euphemistic substitution of “sleeps” for no longer being alive. The friends also employ hyperbole to emphasize their point: “We poor lads, ‘tis our turn now/To hear such tunes as killed the cow.” The phrase “the tune the (old) cow died of” is idiomatically applied to unmusical or tedious pieces of music.

The second section begins with a shift from Terence’s friends to Terence’s response to his friends’ criticism. In the context of this section, the tone shifts from humorous to serious. In delivering his reply, the speaker sidesteps any pretense of self-pity and instead employs wry irony and sarcasm to convey his message. Terence rebuts that there are better mediums than poetry if one desires to dance, drink, and be merry. He suggests that breweries were made for that very purpose; the route to escapism overflows with alcohol. The narrator alludes to John Milton’s Paradise Lost when he states, “And malt does more than Milton can/To justify God’s ways to man.” By this statement, Terence is suggesting that whiskey effectively cuts off sensation and gives the drinker a deluded, distorted vision of the world. The narrator continues on to convey that one who sees the world in a false optimistic light will experience a rude awakening when the pleasant effects of inebriation wear off in a similar manner to the tippler who can only get “halfway home, or near” with his stomach full of beer.

The third section consists of the writer’s justification or rationale for his reasoning. The poet shares that he himself experienced a rude awakening when the aroma of unreality dissipated, sadly relating, “Heigho, the tale was all a lie/The world, it was the old world yet.” This part of the poet’s tale reminds me of the Navras section of the Upanishads, which contains the prayer, “From delusion, lead me to truth.” From this point onward, the narrator begins a segue in which he reveals his fatalistic views, which usually, but not always, stop short of maudlin. The narrator writes, “Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure.” The first draft of this verse read: “Good’s a chance, but ill is sure.” The rewriting of this stanza paints humans as reactive victims of life’s evil or pawns in a chess game. Life is not what we make it; rather, life happens to us. A similar theme is conveyed in Countee Cullen’s “Any Human to Another”: “Joy may be shy, unique/Friendly to a few/Sorrow never scorned to spark/To any who/Were false or true.”

The final section utilizes historical allusion to give weight to the poet’s reasoning and reads like a poem within a poem. The poet relates the tale of Mithridates, a king of Pontus who made himself immune to the poisons of the earth by sampling them in gradually increasing doses. The parallel is obvious: We must sample nature’s “killing store” by reading lugubrious poetry such as that of Terence that we may be “seasoned and sound.” This message reminded me of Quarterflash’s song, “Harden My Heart.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

I tend to regard myself as a dark horse, a black swan, a diamond in the rough, an anomaly. I often wonder what will become of my life. I'm aware that many believe that preoccupation with the future can prevent one from living in the present, but I happen to think that Macavity's curiosity was of an entirely different order altogether. Call it what you want--a highway, a carousel, an hourglass glued to the table--life keeps moving, ebbing and flowing and throbbing with the passions of a thousand splendid suns, burning brilliant flames of crimson red and deep blue, at once a fiery hearth and an ocean of secrets.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

When I Have Fears That I May Cease To Be: Blogging Invisible Man, Part 2

At the beginning of chapter four, the invisible man remarks that he “possessed the only identity I had ever known, and I was losing it. In this brief moment of passage I became aware of the connection between these lawns and buildings and my hopes and dreams” (99). At this point, the invisible man still regards Trueblood and the vets at the Golden Day with bitterness and suspicious and desperately clings to the Founder’s vision. When Dr. Bledsoe reprimands the narrator for taking a trustee to the slave quarters, the invisible man is profoundly disillusioned, feeling as though “black was white” (102). The narrator relates, “Dr. Bledsoe’s attitude toward Mr. Norton was the most confusing of all” (105). Bledsoe tells the invisible man, “You’re nobody, son. You don’t exist—can’t you see that? The white folk tell everybody what to think—except men like me. I tell them; that’s my life, telling white folk how to think about the things I know about…I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (143). Through the narrator’s conversation with Bledsoe, a more manipulative, selfish side of reality is revealed. When the narrator first arrives in the north after being suspended from school, he experiences further disillusionment: “For the first time, as I swung along the streets, I thought consciously of how I had conducted myself at home. I hadn’t worried to much about whites as people…I felt that even when they were polite they hardly saw me…It was confusing. I did not know if it was desirable or undesirable…”(168). Through his experiences, the narrator questions the viability of traveling the straight and narrow path. He felt as if he did everything in his power to make the right decisions and yet was being punished for his earnest efforts. He wonders if his grandfather had been right in his thinking. “Somehow, I convinced myself, I had violated the code and thus would have to submit to punishment” (147).

Monday, January 31, 2011

Can You See Me?: Blogging Invisible Man

Ellison uses a unique, distinct style in order to highlight the disparity between what is conceived to be there and what actually is. Rene Magritte’s The Son of Man brilliantly depicts how things are not always what they seem. Regarding the painting, Magritte once said, “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.” This theme of disparity between imagination and reality is most thoroughly conveyed through the character of the veteran who was formerly a physician. The fact that the physician is unnamed further develops the themes of invisibility and lack of individuality. The vet explains to the narrator and Mr. Norton that “neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less—a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force—“(95). Neither the invisible man nor Mr. Norton see the other for who he actually is. Both are blinded in their relationships by a sense of duty, obligation, and self-preservation and a sense of fulfillment, dignity, and even self-righteousness, respectively.
In his prologue, Ellison seems to allude to how light can help reveal the truth of a man’s true station in life, a station that ought to be independent of relations with others. The narrator observes, “The truth is the light and light is the truth” (7). Ellison consciously introduces an oxymoron, a paradox, as the narrator admits, “Perhaps you’ll think it strange that an invisible man should need light, desire light, love light. But maybe it is exactly because I am invisible. Light confirms my reality, gives birth to my form” (6). The narrator goes on to explain that without life, he is not only invisible but also formless. He relates being unaware of one’s form to living a death. At this point, it seems that the narrator desires two opposites, showing complexity in his character. Invisibility/light imagery may play a significant role in the upcoming chapters of the novel, as the narrator begins to realize and come to terms with his lightness of being.
The narrator also points out that invisibility “gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around” (8). The narrator uses this analogy of time to explain the music of Louis Armstrong in highly surrealistic terms. He explains the need to feel its vibration, a sentiment that is later echoed in the relation of one vet that Mr. Norton’s pulse is not beating, but vibrating. In a dream-like trance, the narrator says that he has become “acquainted with ambivalence,” much like J. Alfred Prufrock. William James once said, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” At the end of the prologue, the narrator presumes that the reader assumes that he is a “horrible, irresponsible bastard,” evocative of the words of the protagonist of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground. Ellison uses surreal, abstract, non-concrete language to convey feelings such as apathy and disillusionment as well as responses to topics such as equality, indignation, philosophy, and existentialism. The dream-like atmosphere he creates is evocative of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, in which the narrator sees “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz.”

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Two Mirrors, One Muse

Seamus Heaney's "Blackberry-Picking" and Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." What do they have in common? A theme. A theme revolving around the transient, fickle nature of life's wonders, pleasures, and curiosities. Both poets accomplish one goal using very different tools and devices. While Frost's poem seems to possess an almost incantatory quality due to its steady, iambic-trimeter beat, Heaney's poem has a very conversational tone, forced by the highly irregular meter.