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.