THE SCIENCE OF EXPRESSION
Art and Language; its History and Form
Copyright © 2013-2015
BRANDON K. NOBLES
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
By THE SAME AUTHOR—
THE DREAM OF THE LOUSE
THE MAKE-BELIEVE BALLROOM
SONGS OF LALANDE
SONGS OF GALILEE
NOBODY: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY
Connect with Brandon online at http://www.brandonknobles.wordpress.com
Hello. The majority of these essays were written before I considered publication. Therefore, repetition and overlapping ideas are to be expected. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort editing this material to try to keep such instances to a minimum. And, as much as I wish for these essays to entertain and inform, I also wish for them to instruct.
First of all, I’d like to talk about the varying positions taken by writers in regards to revision. This is the first time I’ve edited an entire book of my own and I’ll say this: surely, an author being forced to edit his own material for eternity is between one of the Seven Circles of Hell; between lust and suicide, obviously. Trapped as a tree, motionless—yet whirled forever to and fro by the violent winds of passion. Every writer understands this.
Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, believed revision was tantamount to censoring one’s own true vision and that raw, first draft storytelling was always more compelling. The Roman poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, is perhaps most famous for guiding Dante through hell in the first, most popular book of The Divine Comedy, Inferno. Virgil was a revered poet in Dante’s time and that is why Dante, himself an aspiring poet, chose Virgil for his guide through hell. While we know nothing of Dante Aligheri’s method, it is said that Virgil wrote only two lines of poetry per day, and only when he was certain of perfection.
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert is known primarily for two things: his Kubrick-like perfectionism, and his novel Madame Bovary, widely considered to be one of the three great adultery novels of the 19th century; the others being Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Fontaine’s Effi Briest, respectively.
However, it is interesting to consider that he didn’t always belong in such exalted company. Graham Greene, the English author of The Third Man and The Human Factor, a still relevant commentary on apartheid, once said, “Proust was the best novelist of the 20th century, as Tolstoy was the best novelist of the 19th century.”
While I disagree with his opinion, Graham Greene himself was no slouch. He was once thought of as a great himself, described by John Irving, acclaimed screenwriter of the Oscar winning film The Cider House Rules, as the most accomplished living novelist in the English language.
Flaubert’s early struggles are well-known by scholars of 19th century French literature. For this it is all the more remarkable Madame Bovary was put into the same category, even if that category is ‘one of the three great adultery novels,’ as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a book widely thought to be the best novel ever written. Ir it is to be believed, here’s how the story goes: Flaubert read his first novel, November, to a small group of family and friends. When finished, the small crowd to which he read was unanimous in dismissal. They suggested he feed it to the flames. The friendly advice, it would seem, was, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ Because of this, Flaubert would later become one of the most coherent and succinct prose writers of all time, in a never-ending search for les mot juste, the perfect phrase; his success is beyond question. After all, he did write one of the three best adultery novels of the 19th century.
In his part-memoir part-manifesto On Writing, Steven King gives a sweeping account of his life and childhood which emphasizes moments in his life which he believed to have shaped and influenced his work. It’s inspirational and light and has a quaint, touching humanity to it; a testament to the virtue of persistence and passion. In addition to discussing the way in which his style was developed (and how much he hates adverbs) King offers advice for people who are thinking about becoming a writer. He was once told by a publisher: Second draft should be the first draft minus 20%. Remove everything that doesn’t have to be said. Remove the non-story. Most of [Steven] King’s advice is founded in the English Major’s Bible: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; both are worth serious consideration for aspiring authors.
It is now known that Kerouac didn’t always follow his own advice as pages showing considered and layered drafts exist. Virgil’s extreme deliberation, however, is probably apocryphal. Yet if the account is true, and he only put two lines to parchment in a day, I’d say he’s lazy; Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days. So which method is correct? I guess the truth lies somewhere in between Kerouac and the Seven Circles of Hell.
If every writer wrote as though each line would pass under the eyes of whatever pantheon of Gods they have, writers would surely spend an obscene amount of time and effort, like Virgil, on every line. If I knew that this collection of essays would be passed under the eyes of one of my idols, I’d do the opposite of what Jack Kerouac falsely advocated; I’d fix it until it was broken, never release it out of fear, and hope no one ever brought it up.
It is a certainty that upon completion this novel will fall under the scrutiny of at least two friends, both writers, who have my respect and admiration. I’ve always found the best method is to write to the standards of the people whom you love.
There’s no way I can give the best advice to every aspiring writer as method is by its very nature individualistic and singular. The way one person writes may not work for someone else. In this instance, I will attempt to offer serious advice. Know your audience and don’t imply meaning. Don’t define a character through description; allow a character to define himself/herself through choices.
If you intend to write fast-food, pop novels such as the type of meals served by John Grisham, Dean Koontz or Nora Robertson, you know straight away you’re not going for the avant garde, but that doesn’t mean pop literature as pure entertainment can’t have strong characters and natural dialogue. If you want to make a legendary Thanksgiving dinner, like Garcia Marquez or Friedrich Schiller, don’t quit your day job.
When you have a finished manuscript, put it away until you can read it without reading it as your book. Then try to be objective, finish a 1st draft, and gather two friends, male and female, and two enemies, male and female, and read to them. The quality of your book can be directly measured by how embarrassed you feel when you hear your words read aloud. A second draft should be capable of being heard without embarrassment. When your story is finished, then you can format it and check for any remaining typos. Self-publish a galley proof and order it. Invite your friends and enemies and allow them to submit their opinions anonymously. Read it without pride or prejudice but with proper nuance and enthusiasm. If they universally dismiss your ability, call them philistines, and resent them. But keep your dignity. Tell them the inspirational story of our friend Gustave Flaubert, the timeless tale of a timid French writer who rose from the ashes of being French to the Olympian heights of writing one of the three great adultery novels of the 19th century. Not only that, he wrote a great book; Sentimental Education. So write with confidence. If they love it, you’re good. Resent them anyway.
ART IS DEFINED AS MUCH BY THE BEHOLDER AS IT is by the artist. Their combined efforts serve in its completion. Before it’s seen it’s incomplete. The sound a falling tree makes in the woods with no one there to hear it is each unheard piece of music, each book you’ve never read, each painting you haven’t seen. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is meaning and understanding. People complete art in their affirmation of its value. Civilizations are defined more by artists and poets than their kings and queens; as kings and queens are defined by artists and poets. The same is true in the interpretation of art.
In a broad sense, I don’t distinguish literature, music, painting—or any form of true expression—from art, although where I’m from art is usually reserved for visual arts, paintings, sketches, etc. Not all paintings, songs, or stories are art; rather all forms of expression are capable of becoming art when handled properly. And, to distinguish, how do we define art?
To me, art is anything that expresses or shows depth of feeling, passion and sincerity; something that pulses, something that breathes, something that bleeds. The depth of expression is usually the measure of its quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. For example, art can express confusion. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be an emotional state. Expressing confusion is possible, as can be seen in Picasso’s Guernica. It has the quality of emotional detachment, a reservation to it. There are so many ideas, so much to see; the painting is drunk on its own drunkenness, out of control. This technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica. None of those who died were in control. They ran from one fire to another.
To give this painting some context, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the painting and what Picasso intended to represent.
The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.
Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood and his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, but in artistic exaggeration based on life, if loosely, found only in the imagination—where all great art begins.
The struggle once committed to a canvas lives forever. This is hope for the hopeless, a position in the mind of those who honor them. Paint frames them in a moment of horror, the figures paused. Time is broken; in that pause Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother, Polyneices in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.
Antigone did it with her life, Picasso with his brush. The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an, above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.
Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses.
Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared with many stark, more wistful expressions. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such noise, such horror and panic. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the orgasm, the consummation of imagination and technique.
The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the world fair in Paris in 1937. It’s a disheartening pattern when one considers some of the most beloved paintings we have from pre-modernity may have debuted to little or no success at all and, possibly, even to scorn and disgust.
Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an expression of protest, pain, and chaos. I think it was a chaotic expression of pain as protest. Many things are made of the light, as the lightbulb could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, which is similar to the word for bomb, bomba. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus; a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808.
This painting was inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. [It] is lit by a box lantern on the ground at the feet of the firing squad, lighting them from below and casting their expressions in shadow. At the same time the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen and also serves as a gesture, a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles to the background to create depth, to create breathing room for the characters depicted. Picasso later reworked the painting:
In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And more important is a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible? Keep this in mind: Jesus is a prominent figure in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, and a good percentage of those pronounce it as it’s spelled in English. Now this is hilarious:
Jesus is a mistranslation (the idea of the virgin birth is the result of mistranslating ‘young woman); the letter J isn’t in the Greek or Hebrew alphabet and the Hebrew name is Yeshua. The English spelling is Joshua. Iesous is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name and its English is Jesus. That’s right: half of the world of Christendom is mispronouncing their God’s name. If something as important as, you know, the name of whomever you worship, can be muddled, how are we supposed to get through history when the game is Chinese Whispers?
Some artistic license is incapable of finding its way through translation. The first thing that comes to mind is the disparity in how obscenity is judged. One of the most unique approaches to convey oneself is van Gogh’s self-portrait as a pair of boots, suggesting that the character of a person can be revealed through their possessions. Van Gogh did this many times throughout his career; by painting absence; he did it with chairs, villages, and boots, of course.
It’s a good idea and a good painting; and a man with such worn out boots is a man who often walks, and anyone who walked as much as van Gogh spent a lot of time alone, lost in thought, living the life of the mind. So he’s a thoughtful person, and the shoes are sleepy looking; he’s forever tired, an insomniac with some nervous malady. In many parts of the world, receiving that painting, with knowledge of what it is, would give anyone who received it joy. Even if they didn’t get van Gogh, or thought that he couldn’t paint because he didn’t try to be a camera, they would understand its value.
Now, take that same painting to a family in Saudi Arabia. They would not be thrilled to receive such an image, not even as a gift. In Saudi Arabia shoes, boots, and footwear in general, if shown to a guest or elder; is offensive, as offensive in their culture as the middle finger is in America, as the A-Okay gesture is in Brazil. Do not use that gesture in Brazil. Things will be decidedly not A-Okay. They’ll hang you from arms of Christ the Redeemer if you pull some shit like that.
It was one of van Gogh’s personal favorites. It won him little critical or commercial acclaim but, with his first sunflowers, this was a great way of painting metaphorically.
Variations in opinions on art are explicable only in terms of individuals, their history, and their culture. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas, independent of the work to the fore, some memory on the tip of the tongue you can’t quite name. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.
I have a coffee-table book on the collected works of the Dutch painter Vermeer. On the cover is perhaps Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl With a Pearl Earring. For me, this painting has become permanently associated with a friend of mine; since the book was a gift, and I once attempted to similarly depict her, she has become attached to the painting in that unique, Proustian way.
Because of time and habit, the painting itself has all but lost its intended emotional appeal; I still appreciate its beauty, its soft (what light?) angelic glow. But now when I see that face, I imagine a friend; a friend whose company I would much prefer to the portrait to which she is now inextricably attached. This could be a unique example of Pavlovian conditioning wherein instead of the result being conditioned fear it is in this instance conditioned love. The painter could have never foreseen this association and this type of meaning is by its very nature singular.
Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite. It means different things to different people. That is the positive aspect of subjectivity the interpretation of art. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, indeed, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous; and this is what makes art great, the ability to connect to it personally, to understand and, in the process, learn something about ourselves, about who we are, and what made us that way. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the interpreter as it does about the artist.
It’s fun to speculate. It’s fun to talk about art and literature with your friends. That is part of the magic of the creative process, and a great thing for form and style—as ambiguity is purposed for varied interpretation.
Some authors not only have vague messages, they themselves have no true intention or meaning to consciously convey. The postmodern movement in art and literature stretched the unconscious onto the page and all was open to interpretation. Consider the varied analyses of Samuel Beckett’s tragic/comic play Waiting for Godot. There are different readings of the same material from every angle; from Freudian and Jungian psychosexuality and behaviorist studies to political Christian homoerotic interpretations. That’s what makes it so bizarre and enjoyable.
It’s this far-reaching and confounding web of connections that makes us draw knots trying to make a constellation; then it frustrates you to the point of being satisfied with the labyrinth, and eager to overcome your insecurities, as Theseus overcame the Minotaur. That’s what makes books such as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow so challenging for critics and essayists. And for better or for worse, it makes books like this possible.
THE GREAT MONKEY KING;
Prelude to a Fallible Philosophy
THE JATAKAS ARE AN ANCIENT COLLECTION OF parables and fables intended to impart the values and traditions of Theravada Buddhism unto children. These stories recount the past lives and incarnations of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha is a title, not a name, and is best translated as, ‘Awakened one,’ despite the more popular English translation, ‘Enlightened one.’ It’s important not to confuse the historical Buddha with the “fat Buddha” so widely known in the West. The fat Buddha is a Chinese deity of wealth and plenty named Hotei and has no connection to the historical Buddha. If the accounts are to any degree valid, the historical Buddha was quite fit.
Gautama distinguished himself in more than just his diet; Siddhartha was an ascetic, though not quite austere, patient and humble. He eschewed wealth and taught moderation. This had a level of authenticity due to the fact that Siddhartha was a prince, first in line to the throne of the Shakya tribe; and he gave it up to wander through the woods in search of enlightenment. He didn’t claim divinity or supernatural influence and was not above the pains and desires of this world. Siddhartha was probably the first philosopher who went deeper than philosophy into psychology, into what the Dalai Lama has called the science of the mind.
It’s not surprising that the Buddha’s teachings, which denounced wealth and warned of the destructive nature of desire, would get him into trouble with the highest caste of society, the Brahmans. As keepers of the ancient religious traditions of the Vedas, the Brahmans were powerful and wealthy. When the Buddha was brought before them and charged with blasphemy, he defended his teachings in a precise and understandable manner. The Buddha described his teachings as such, “I know not whence the arrow comes, nor who holds the bow; I’m interested only in how to live with the pain.”
I guess that was good enough. He wasn’t interested in money or converting anyone, or changing anyone’s core beliefs. He was, at his core, an educator of the heart.
The middle path is the primary focus for Buddhist aspirants. These teachings were spread with poetry, stories, and songs. There’s a unique, strangely relevant story from the Jatakas I would very much like to share with you. It is important to understand that, as messengers should not be shot, they should also not be worshipped. The wisdom of Aesop, famous as well for fables, has not brought worship or adulation to Aesop as a man; as it is needed nor necessary for any person who wishes to contribute to the betterment of the world, even if it’s one small story at a time. The point, I should say, is this: a philosophy should be more important than the philosopher.
We don’t know who wrote Beowulf. It doesn’t matter. For if we knew the name of that Anglo-Saxon poet, the story would still be more important than the character of the writer. Idolizing a person of great ideas diminishes the value of those great ideas; as [the message] is less and less focused on, as the cult of personality takes shape. The Buddha never wanted to be iconic, and yet he probably has one of the largest personality cults of all time.
One night the Buddha sat around a fire and listened to his followers, the Bhikkus, and heard a particularly beautiful and inspirational tale; a tale of love, humility, and selflessness. The Buddha was profoundly moved by their tale and asked for it to be repeated that he may better appreciate its value and improve his depth of understanding. Upon hearing it once more, the Buddha sat for a moment in silence, then spoke:
“This is not the first time the Tatagatha has done well for the good of life. I would like to tell you a story and I think you will enjoy it. It is the story of the Great Monkey King.
“Once there was a Great King, a King of the Monkeys of the Himalayas. He was wise in mind and noble in character. He was a most respected King, solemn and humble, adored by the many monkeys under his rule and protection.
“Along the bank of the Ganges River (where the historical Buddha is said to have wandered) there grew a magnificent mango tree with massive branches. The fruit was ripe and sweet and spread across the embankment The King, keen in awareness and perceptive, knew this could be disastrous, as the King of Men, and all his knights behind him, could find the tree and subdue it, as men were known to do.
“He made the decision to have his subjects pick the flowers and fruit from the trees so the men would soon move out of their territory. They did their duty diligently, but in their haste left one tree unspoiled, intact, as it was hidden from their sight. And soon a fruit unnoticed, from the great mango tree fell into the Ganges, beside the bathing King. He was so fond of the mango’s taste, he ordered his soldiers into the forest to find the mango tree and pick from it as many mangoes as they could carry. After a brief search the King’s men found the tree the monkeys had neglected, but couldn’t get them all at once, as night was settling over them and, with their bellies full, they fell asleep under the moon.
“As soon as the Monkey King confirmed the King of Men and his soldiers were asleep, they sought the forgotten tree and began to remove the rest of the mangoes. They hoped that, with all the mangoes gone, the soldiers would finally leave their forest home. The monkeys scattered through the limbs and made such noise the King of Men was roused and found above him the army of the Monkey King. The King of Men felt threatened by the monkeys and woke his men. They were ordered to pursue them with their bows.
“They saw no way to escape and they feared for their lives. They gathered with their children and their families around the Great Monkey King and asked, ‘What can we do? They’re going to kill us.’
“The Great Monkey King spoke to them without fear and much reassured them that they were not in danger as he would not let them come to harm. Their spirits were lifted and the monkeys were entreated by their King to follow him to a small crossing. It was much too deep for them to wade, and as they were poor swimmers, they didn’t know how they could get to the other shore.
“On the shore they stood upon was raised a barren mango tree, and on the other one as well; the Monkey King carried a heavy rope on his back, sprung from the base of the dead tree, up the trunk, up into the empty branches, and pulled it down with him onto the other side of the river, making a bridge. On the other shore he found a long vine and fastened it to the tree to allow the rest of the monkeys to cross. The he tied the vine around his waist and leapt across the river, returning to the other shore in haste. And in his haste he made a mistake. The Great Monkey King forgot to include himself in his estimate of distance and therefore would not be able to reach the other side. The Great Monkey King did not despair, and would not give up; where there is true peace, and true love, seeds of despair do not bear fruit.
“By holding on to a smaller branch which he had managed to grab, it was possible for the other monkeys to cross; though he would then be stranded in the river there to drown. He wished them luck as they passed. Even though the Monkey King had made a mistake, he refused to give up, and managed to grab a branch. Seeing his fearlessness much comforted the Monkey King’s dedicated subjects; they were no longer afraid.
“The King of Men, seeing this, was moved to tears and a great feeling of empathy overcame him. ‘This King of Monkeys,’ said the King of Men, ‘has sacrificed his life for the safety of his subjects.’
“The King of Men then called his soldiers to a conference and ordered them to bring the body of the Great Monkey king ashore. They brought him back to camp and bathed him and anointed him with perfumes, dressing him in noble robes. He was given sugar water to drink and was treated with respect by all who looked upon him. One day the King of Men, hearing of the Great Monkey King’s failing health, visited him in his tent. He stood before the Monkey King and made a low bow. ‘Tell me, Great Monkey King,’ said the King of Men, ‘what were those other monkeys to you? What could mean more to you than your own life?
“The Monkey King replied, ‘Great King, as you must guard your soldiers and protect your honor, I must guard my herd. I am their lord; their chief, their shepherd. When they are filled with fear, I will assure them. They know I will give my life to keep them from being harmed. To be a great king and ruler, a king must guarantee the happiness and safety of those under his command. Sire, you must understand this if you wish to be a righteous ruler. The happiness of your people must be worth a life, it must be worth your own.
“Speaking thus, the Great Monkey King closed his eyes and died in peace. He was given a royal burial. The women carried torches to guide his soul to the next world. A shrine was erected in his memory; the height of honor, adorned with lotus flowers. The King of Men would remember the sacrifice of the Monkey King for the rest of his life.”
When the Buddha finished his story, it was said that each of his assembly felt a renewed sense of togetherness and safety. The Buddha said, “In that age so long ago, the King of Men was
Ananda; the monkeys this assembly, and myself the Monkey King.”
THE EVOLVING LOOKING-GLASS
FOR 97% OF OUR SPECIES’ TIME ON THIS PLANET WE have no stories or documents. We can only conjecture and infer and speculate and imagine as to how our earliest ancestors lived. It is possible, even likely, that stories were being written much further into the past than the oldest stories we have, but if there are such stories, they are not extant and not to be found in the historical record.
Before the stories of ancient Mesopotamia, we have nothing; afterwards, however, a Cambrian-like literary explosion took place, with similar stories—the stories of Gods and Goddesses and God-kings and God-queens—springing up simultaneously from many different civilizations. As it has been noted, like languages, pyramids sprung up from many different pre-historic cultures independently, each without knowledge of the other. The literary equivalent can be seen in the flood myths of many ancient civilizations in the Middle East; it is interesting to note the way stories evolve and change even when they’re about the same event.
There is a book called Oral Lit as Holy Writ by Alan Dundes, a folklorist who holds a professorship at UC Berkeley, which shows how fables evolve into hierarchal belief systems and how those fables are repurposed by religious leaders, often borrowing from other cultures. Consider the flood of Noah as recounted in the Old Testament (or the Pentateuch, Torah, the Books of Moses.)
Ziusudra was from the ancient Sumerian City of Shuruppak, meaning, ‘The Healing Place.’ This may not be a familiar name; but this story predates the account of the global flood to be found in Genesis. Ziusudra is known to have been the last king of Sumer prior to the great flood. The single account of Sumer’s creation myth was excavated in Nippur and is called the Eriduo Genesis. It is written in Sumerian and dates to 1600 BC during the first Babylonian dynasty.
Sumeria’s story is a bit different. Being a polytheistic religion, one God isn’t the only one who’s a bit miffed; in this instance there are a committee of pissed off Gods: An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursanga are responsible for allowing the flood to destroy the human race. Almost a thousand years before the account in Genesis, this story tells of a Gudug priest and what came to pass after he was told of an impending flood. In a later version of the story, an Akkadian version, Ea (or Enki) warns a humble man named Astra-hasis and is then given instructions to build an ark.
This leads to another biological parallel: if there is convergent evolution in flora and fauna, is there a literary equivalent to this phenomena? Could all the unknown intricacies within the human genome lead to epigenetic, subtle, information transfer and inheritance? Is it possible that the dreams or lives of our ancestors are relived within our own dreams, consisting of what we know of the human genome and what we have yet to correlate to function? Could this information play out as the unconscious data without known functions, permeating minds when closed off by the natural echo chamber of sleep? I once thought that the curiosity of the prevalent flood was somehow inherent, a fixed memory, being our intuitive knowledge of our own birth.
There may be an even more absurd notion; it might be true. The issue of its veracity, to me, comes down to how people of that era would be able to know if water was covering the whole world when the Americas had yet to be discovered, and, how even in our modern era, we have to check the internet or the weather channel to get the forecast for other countries and cities. It is possible that the entire world as they knew it was flooded.
Either these stories somehow travel through the darker, undiscovered catacombs of genetic code, or pass like oral lit, evolve into the written word and then pass through the ages as a part of the dreampool, the intellectual equivalent of the genepool from which our beliefs and identities are formed through assimilation or rejection.
The sheer number of independent flood accounts in different places and different eras, though all relegated to the Middle East, are familiar with Ziusudra and the Sumerian account, which is the oldest written record we have of a global flood. This attests to the fact that, whether it is biological or oral tradition, stories are inherited. And these ‘prokaryotes’ are replicas, replicas with just the nouns and pronouns changed.
The Genesis flood in the Biblical Old Testament endures to this day, with many people taking it as literal history. The Greeks have similar myths. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I recounts the flooding of the world. The difference between this story and the familiar Genesis account is that one person, the King of Arcadia, has incurred Zeus’s anger by sacrificing a child. Before Zeus unleashed the flood, Deucalian, with the aid of his father Prometheus (with whom the Gods would also have a bit of a disagreement,) was saved from the flood by building an ark, like Noah and the Mesopotamian Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.
The case for Alan Dundes’s assessment that all of these stories and fables became the source for holy lit is further evidenced by how close these cultures were in proximity to one another, in locale if not in time.
Even before oral lit there was a form of communication among humans, a communication that is closer to the language spoken of other primates; the role of the FoxP2 gene has been studied in great detail and is thought by evolutionary biologists to have played a major role in the development of consonant-vowel speech patterns which evolved in concert with our controlled and conscious breathing to form the sounds required for speaking.
This was first presented by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man. It is a widely cited and popular idea, even in our literary culture, once referenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes publication; serialized in The Strand as A Study in Scarlet. In it Holmes says to his companion Watson:
“Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are subtly influenced by it; there are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”
Watson replied, “That is a rather broad view, Holmes.” To which, Sherlock Holmes says, “One’s views must be broad if we are to interpret nature.”
Modern discoveries, including the discovery of a protein encoded by the FOXP2 gene, a human specific phenotype located on the 7th chromosome, have shown that this protein is also found in songbirds. Darwin was correct inasmuch as suggesting song was a precursor to speech as much as speech was a precursor to language and language a precursor to story.
Before alphabets, however, before even Gilgamesh and Elfinspell, there are examples of sequential symbols being used to tell stories through hieroglyphs long before the cultures of 6,000 years ago began to preserve stories for posterity; so, in essence, comic books are the oldest form of storytelling, going back at least 30,000 years.
There is a period in our evolutionary history called the Great Leap Forward, before the agricultural revolution. It is thought that it is in this period humans began to make complex and well developed tools along with using figurative language. This historical awakening coincides with the advent of processes that would make primitive communication possible, through tone and pitch at first, a language still spoken in the jungles of the world. It was a necessity: the beginning of a cumulative advancement, as knowledge could be preserved and passed from generation to generation.
The book considered by most to be the first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was discovered in ancient Mesopotamia. Although there are stories thought to be older, such as Elfinspell and The Shipwrecked Sailor from Upper Nubia, Gilgamesh will here be used as the starting point from which all else follows.
The first stories to be written were written in cuneiform characters in and around Mesopotamia. And these cuneiform symbols, which, like itinerant species, branched off into different idiomatic inflections, adapting to new environments. It was the diplomatic alphabet used in Babylon, Hattusha, and Egypt. As with animals, language, once separated from its indigenous habitat, will, given enough time, adapt and evolve.
Italian and Sicilian are examples of this kind of evolution as both are offshoots of the Latin language and originally were no different. Separating cultures allowed for languages to, at first, become colloquial and cultural until finally becoming different enough to be classified as a new species. As language has evolved and our ways of writing have changed, the materials used for writing have changed as well.
Throughout history stories have been written on everything from papyrus, clay tablets, cement walls, blotting paper, stones, hemp paper, modern paper, typewriters, and finally the predominant methods used in the digital age. Television programmes are as related to cuneiform writing once chiseled into stone as we are to chimpanzees, as we are both descendants of the ancient order of australopithecines; having diverged in lineage around 6 million years ago.
We live in an age where information is more available than it has been in the history of our species. This text can be transferred from one corner of the Earth to another with minimal effort. If I want to look for a copy of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, I have only to do a brief search and I can find it—in the original French or in translation. It is an irony I think that in our era, books have become more widely available than they have in human history, and yet are probably less read than at any other time. I have a device in my back pocket which contains more books than the highest estimates of the contents of the famed library of Alexandria. Our access to information on government and religion is unprecedented; at no time in history has a civilization bore the critique of its government and religion in the manner now available.
We are more advanced than we have ever been. But when I say we’re more advanced, what is meant by that? Advancement relative to what? The issue comes down to how we define human progress.
In ascertainable history, we’ve seen the world evolve by looking through different windows, wearing different lenses as academics; be it biology, history, physics, genetics—the fields continue to advance. The difference between now and then is not only do the films evolve as we watch with genre-specific glasses, the windows we look through have now themselves evolved.
Gilgamesh, like The Arabian Nights, have preserved these cultures for all time, like ornate ships in a bottle being passed between countries carried by the natural rhythms of the Earth according to season and mood. We’ve sent our poems and our music and our biological information into space. The music of Mozart may one day be found by a culture with no understanding of who we are and through that music would know all they’d need to know.
The Bhikkus we discussed in the Great Monkey King have passed down the stories told by the Buddha to their children for hundreds of generations and these stories are genetic, the preserved DNA of a culture. The books we read are arranged into pairs of letters like units of DNA which, in a manner similar to the way in which our biological traits are programmed, greatly shape our character and personality.
Art and stories, folklore and music, are the backbone of cumulative, cultural advancement. They are, based on their quality, protected by posterity, affording ideas the ability to be further built upon. To see the future of literature, you must look to the other schools of academia, where numbers and letters join, to glossolalia.
To understand the future of language, the origins, the proto-form of the expressed idea must be explored and we, with our new window, must go back to the parent of all ideas—the eukaryotic idea. This is what made the evolution of life and ideas possible.
THE EUKARYOTIC IDEA
LITERATURE, IN EVOLUTIONARY TERMS, BEGINS and ends with the idea. Even if the idea is unconsciously expressed, it is behind the conveyance of all forms of information. Because of this, the idea is behind the edifice of standardized language.
Language is a recent development; the end product of intermediate stages that have been changed throughout history. To show the developmental stages of narrative is necessary when looking to the future. Before we look at variations between languages, I’d like to present a more natural way of looking at language and what language represents.
Human beings aren’t the only animals that use language, nor are they the only animals to use language to describe objects and other individuals within their species and environments. Dolphins are well known for their intelligence and have names for one another; they have names for objects and places. It was recently discovered that crows pass information and habits to offspring through language, and, as it is with humans, these animals have different, colloquial accents; and, when conditioned to respond negatively to certain masks and faces, crows will not only continue to respond negatively and attack the same mask years after their conditioning, their offspring will inherit these prejudices. That’s right; racism is hereditary.
Literature is not only the chronicle of life or ideas; a book is a haunted house, a haunted house that scares the shit out of complacent, naïve people. To start with the first organized story using structured language would be to exclude 97% of our history. So, we have to use the 3% of our history we have to account for the rest. The best way to do this is to look at literature in biological and genetic terms. What follows this is a eukaryotic idea: when new information becomes available, this idea will have to be revised. Dismissing reality to keep an idea alive is more often than not what kills it.
Based on the information we have available, what we know as life began in more basic and simple terms and remained that way for the greater majority of biological history. The birth of conveying ideas began in prokaryotic fashion, as life began as prokaryotic in nature. To say that ideas were originally prokaryotic is to say that the replica was idealistically without variation from the replicator. This is the stage in literary evolution when the idea and the representation were the same: images of cows, fish, and people, were what they conveyed; cows, fish, and people. This was the first form of idea, the prokaryotic idea.
The eukaryotic idea became possible with the disconnect between idea and representation. Without abstraction we would be without the majority of literary devices we so often use such as analogy, simile, metaphor, parody, satire, equivocation. At this stage, a cow can be an obese person; taken further, the obese person can be gluttony; gluttony can be insatiable desire, a sin, and a hobby. At the deepest level of meaning, meaning becomes a choice on behalf of the reader.
One of the most famous works of English literature, The Old Man and the Sea, which won Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature, was about a man going fishing. The reason it won is not because the board of voters is particularly good in judging English literature. There was a mystical, archetypal sense about the famous short story. I think something with that kind of simplicity and clarity in storytelling is startling. It is presented as idea without equivocation. What makes good literature resonate is literature that doesn’t think for the reader. It presents a story without obvious answers and this is what compels us to project onto it our own ideas and theories.
The Old Man and the Sea is not specifically about how we are defined by our struggles; the kind of struggle which always demands one more effort, one more pull, forever and ever. It’s not about climbing to the top of a mountain to discover it’s a sand-dune. It’s not about how even when we achieve our goal it comes to nothing, as only the bones of the great fish remain when the man returns to port. It is not about the fight between two aspects of nature. It’s about an old man and the sea, an old man who dreams of lions when he sleeps. What is the fish and what is the man? They are the same thing: organisms fighting for their continued survival. The struggle portrayed in literary terms resonates in biological terms. The reason the book is so meaningful is because it is not intended to be meaningful.
The most important difference in the prokaryotic cell and the eukaryotic cell is that the eukaryotic cells has a nucleus bound membrane which allows for the passing of genetic information from one generation to another. In eukaryotic ideas, information is being passed and replicated imperfectly. The imperfection is its greatest attribute because it allows for improvement. The only reason evolution is possible is because DNA is not always perfectly copied, and sometimes variations have better chances of surviving than a genetic replica would have.
Change happens during replication, during chromosomal encoding as each gene, in competition with an alternate gene, an allele, takes place along each slot, each locus, at each of the mother’s 23 chromosomes and the father’s 23 chromosomes. Adaptation, on the genetic level, doesn’t happen within an organism’s lifetime. Its ability to adapt is dependent on its genetic endowment. There are selection pressures amongst varying ideas, and it is most often cultural, subjected to changing intellectual climates and competition with other competing philosophies. Eukaryotic ideas are different than prokaryotic ideas because there is deviation in replication that allows for difference to enter into the dreampool. The difference between the biological and literary eukaryote is that an idea can change and adapt after birth. This is what makes the evolution of ideas and information possible and this is how knowledge can be improved upon.
As we’ve seen, ideas are inherited. The success of an idea is largely dependent on the environment in which it emerges. Its success among competing ideas within that culture. Genes operate under the same principle and those which allow the organism to survive aren’t selected in the human sense, and perhaps ideas aren’t either.
The cave paintings in Chauvet, France can be considered the archetypal prokaryotic idea: it is both idea and representation and does not deviate in replications.
Considering fire in biological terms can illustrate this point. Fire breathes; it excretes; it consumes and produces energy; it gives birth to daughter fires; you can smother it by cutting off its oxygen, drown it in water, but fire doesn’t pass on genetic information, even though it makes copies of itself, even though there are different varieties of fire. Some spit, some crackle, some hiss; but they are biologically not alive, although they share these traits with living organisms. The difference between fire and eukaryotic organisms is the passing of genetic information through DNA.
Tone is the gateway to understanding modern language, as domesticated animals can usually understand commands given based on their tone, volume, and rapidity. The point of tone is to convey the idea, but tone is predated by pictorial literature wherein symbols are used to represent something they aren’t, the combination of different symbols to reference other ideas.
The way we begin to understand language in our native environment is not through form and definition. We begin to understand words by the tone and volume of the sound, in concert with posturing, facial expression, and other such things that children understand more thoroughly than adults. Parents, or more precisely, mothers, will tell you that a child can mean a lot without using descriptive language. A mother can differentiate happiness, grumpiness, anger, and contentment (silence) in terms of tone. Even when a tone is no different to the ear of a casual listener, a child crying because of hunger and a child crying because of being sleepy can be understood biologically by mothers. This is found in other species as well, as tone can extend and manipulate the genes of other animals at a distance.
There are two examples I can use to illustrate this principle. Cuckoos never raise their own children. Female cuckoos parasitize the nests of other birds, such as the common reed warbler. When it becomes obvious to the diminutive reed warbler that what she’s feeding may not be, in fact, a reed warbler, considering that it is larger than the rest of the chicks, and her, the cuckoo is capable of making a noise that mitigates this factor.
The noise produced by a cuckoo chick is an expression of its genes, an extended phenotype; it can be said to control the way the reed warbler thinks, as the sound a cuckoo makes acts on the mind of the reed warbler. The sound made by the obviously fraudulent cuckoo is enough to change the reed warbler’s ability to realize that whatever is making that sound probably isn’t a reed warbler, or any other kind of warbler. This is not the only instance in which a phenotype is extended.
There is a species of cricket in which the male uses very specific and intentional sounds to manipulate the ovulation of female crickets at a distance. The general concept is synonymous to that of the reed warbler; as a part of our natural inheritance, we can use sound and tone to convey basic needs.
As animals born into environments in which their immediate ancestors were, genetic information that gives the resultant organism its tenacity and survival probability comes from an organism that relied on its genetic information to survive in the same environment. To illustrate this in terms that apply to ideas, an idea which allows for an organism to maximize its utility within its environment is, although not always consciously, selected.
The information carried in DNA makes up the chromosome of every animal on Earth, all of which have phenotypic traits encoded by four letters: T, U, G, and A. Every animal you see in the wild is just a different assemblage of those four letters of DNA, collectively representing an animal’s genome. Similarly, each book is a different animal. In English, each of those animals are just different arrangements of twenty-six letters. Different languages, obviously, have different letters and alphabets. Considering the English alphabet only, all of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the collected works of Dickens and Shakespeare—all being different only in its arrangement of the same twenty-six letters.
The most common selection pressures are the environment (culture) predators (competing, contrary ideas,) and, in the idea’s case, adaptability. A rigid idea, which does not adapt, is prokaryotic; this means that while there may be individuals who try to adapt it, the adaptation process is an unnatural one: when the terms we use to evaluate nature are altered to adapt the idea to new cultures, this is the reversal of ideal evolution. It is preservation, but it is stasis. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation has been modified to more accurately describe nature and it took 300 years for it to become a closer representation of what nature reveals to us.
The interpretation of nature hasn’t been changed to give more authority to Newton’s theory of gravitation. When someone distorts information provided by nature to fit an idea, this is the death of the idea as a viable, adaptable organism, and this process is what assigns prokaryotic attributes to the idea, because once an idea is no longer subject to revision based on better understandings of nature, and objective data provided by observations of nature, it can only survive through prokaryotic replication. The conceit that an imperfect being can have a perfect idea, an idea that overreaches future, contradictory discoveries, is unhealthy, and leads to stagnation.
These ideas may be dead on a biological level, but survive as the literary equivalent of a living fossil. Living fossils are extremely successful species that can survive without significant change for millions of years. They are perfectly adapted to their environment, are either without predation or the apex predator, and lack competition for food and mates within its species and among cohabiting species.
Prokaryotic living fossils in literature aren’t successful because they are perfectly adapted to the environment. Adaptation to an environment means, in literary terms, that the preserved product was molded and shaped by the culture. This is how more vibrant and adaptable eukaryotic ideas survive; they are updated to fit the environment as it changes. Prokaryotic, living fossil ideas are so successful because they were created for the environment, and then the environment was adapted to the idea.
These ideas are successful enough without the intellectual sculpting and cultural evaluation and revision that makes eukaryotic ideas successful, viable organisms. Even though they compete through people, by proxy, only the ideas are at war. Through people, ideas make war with other ideas, which happen to be in other people. An idea is what wins a war, never a person. The winner of a war is never a person, it is the idea. People never survive a war, they die—for what survives is no longer a person.
With few exceptions, such as humans, other primates, and dolphins, when an animal kills another animal there is no need for justification. Need is the justification. In natural conditions, animals kill other animals to survive, for food, to prolong their lives. Animals such as the big cats (tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars) teach their offspring how to kill, admittedly, but it is not about philosophy. Cheetahs don’t chase down antelopes and kill them because they disagree. In more intelligent animals, where there is killing for sport, for thrills, for ideas, the idea itself is, to some degree, symbiotic; it is using the organism to transmit itself to other hosts. It is a virus, a disease—Marco Polio.
Prokaryotic ideas survive at the expense of people; eukaryotic ideas survive because people, culturally and collectively, keep them alive to better the culture and the collective.
Methodology and evolutionary history has shown how harmful it can be to introduce a foreign species to an isolated, stable ecosystem. A prominent example is the dodo, a flightless bird not unlike the common pigeon, which once inhabited the island of Mauritius. The species’ that inhabit an island are a snapshot of a different evolutionary era and have selection pressures that are favored only there, pressures which haven’t yet prepared them for something like a dog, a cat, or a drunk sailor.
Importing living fossil ideas and introducing them to indigenous ideas is the first symptom that hints at the real relationship between idea and host: this is a symbiotic relationship with the carrier species, podochus ennoia; from the Greek for ‘idea holder,’ and a prokaryotic idea that can only make replicas. It’s a perfect word: a dying idea uses a host to escape, to survive, to maximize the survivability of its genes.
The success of the prokaryotic idea is dependent on p. ennoia to propagate and survive, since it has lost its ability to change to suit environments, environments are changed by p. ennoia to accommodate the idea. Superficial changes are made to make it successful for different potential carriers. In this case, the language of the prokaryotic idea behaves like DNA, as it rewrites an organism’s thought, and inoculates them against attempts at further cultural and intellectual adaptation.
The analogy can be extended, biologically, because when an idea requires a host organism, a carrier species, to survive, it doesn’t simplify and adapt itself; it simplifies and degrades the carrier.
The ennoia begin as objective idea evaluators, where ideas are given value based on accuracy in description and economy of explanation. To become a pod, an idea host, it is usually the mistake made by someone mistaking a virus as the cure for a deeper sickness. When a superficial, mass-market idea kicks into gear, hosts are immunized by the symbiotic life-form against attempts at objective evaluation and become permanently prokaryotic, ideas whose survival is dependent on the ennoia’s success in adapting new environments, which includes new carriers, for the idea.
This type of reverse-engineering takes place within the dreampool with disturbing regularity. Eukaryotic ideas, ideas which evolve to best represent nature in natural philosophy, are rarely changed by individuals, but by collections of individuals within scholastic traditions. Einstein’s gravitational constant was phased out, because it was incorrect. As it was eukaryotic in nature, it allowed for after-birth evolution to take place, and when errors were found within the idea, an attempt to revise it to keep it alive was made. When revision couldn’t save it, and nothing but opinion could support it, it was phased out of the dreampool. A prokaryotic idea resists adjustment. Before Charles Darwin and Watson and Crick and Mendel, different versions of these ideas were in the dreampool.
Lamarcke was a French biologist who had an epigenetic centered view that revolved around the error in supposing that if you learned to speak other languages during your lifetime, your genetic code would be rewritten and your children would inherit the ability to speak these languages. Lamarcke’s idea of evolution was phased out because it was wrong. Objective idea-evaluators know what can prove them wrong, and in most cases, are not extremely keen in putting forth the effort required to be considered right.
Note. This chapter is intended to be experimental, expressionist, and is done in the vein of self-parody and irony. This is a rambling mess included for the sole purpose of extending the concept of the eukaryotic idea. For a more straightforward and natural chapter, skip to chapter 7.
DAVID HUME WAS A POPULAR SCOTTISH
philosopher and naturalist. He didn’t live long enough to become acquainted with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Mendel’s theory of dominant and recessive genes, but he was very keen on science, nature over myth, and proof over faith. Conceding a less deterministic, pre-programmed ideal of humanity and the cosmos, he believed the abdication of free-will was a means of obfuscation, a way to defer responsibility for one’s actions.
Voltaire once said, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him.’
If Voltaire was alive today, having seen the last hundred years of war and terror, I’m sure he’d reconsider. Forced with the maddening conclusion that there is a God, which cannot be proven for all to accept it, there are many ways, if not to prove, to strongly persuade. Perhaps this may be the original argument. There have been many books dedicated to precisely this and in modern America the debate continues. Arguments for and against have been put to the public at large, with varying degrees of success. There are good arguments on both sides.
What became the dictator, the belief, began as idea, if a somewhat pregnant one. We have, for the most part, in modernity, allowed the ruled to choose the rulers; this makes sense, as people are most easily deceived by those they trust. The Master isn’t what it used to be. It is more subtle, more nuanced. Due to a psychological trait called confirmation bias, the relationship between the host and idea is only made stronger by antagonism. The relation is now that of symbiosis; between a carrier organism and a sickness, a virus: Marco polio. When an organism is possessed by a virus, the impulse to infect others is overwhelming. There is nothing greater or more important than the point.
The way this works is analogous to the way in which biological viruses work and the demonstratively bad impact they have, not only on the ecosystem at large, but on a carrier organism’s viability. This works with symbols and sigils and at this moment in human history in America, the most powerful symbol is the dollar sign; the symbol, the addictive element of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick fantasies about the American dream, is the appeal to desire (whose twin is despair.)
‘Give me the child for 7 years, and I’ll give you the man,’ was once used more confidently; those who wish to erode one’s sense of self and identity is much more subtle now. Yet it all begins with the appeal to fear and hope; the idea that you’re not in control and your life is bereft of meaning, and the hope that through this process you will attain meaning and control. What life means is no longer as important as how much life costs. That’s why the dollar sign has risen out of the shadow of the cross. They say money can’t buy happiness. I guess. But it can buy half of it, I bet.
It is ironic that the most prevalent cause of slavery in history is the possibility, the promise of freedom. This is a well-understood idea and affords expansionist slave-owners the ability to create slaves. If the cross’s popularity can be explained by its appeal to our fear of death, the dollar sign’s popularity can be explained by its ability to appeal to the possibility of happiness without having to die. This is fine when it’s an individual choice and kept to one’s self. When it evolves, as the best viruses do, you forget that it’s a thought. When it takes control of the host completely, it becomes something for which a believer will sacrifice their lives, their children’s lives, and the lives of other people’s children. This is all in service to the point. At what point is this going to be explained in terms of what it is—a Sickness?
When one’s own happiness is dependent on what another person believes, they become enslaved by the point, and it’s usually something they inherit: racism and xenophobia, excommunication and divisions, all of which are, if not invented, at least cultivated and nourished—class, sexual inequality, race, culture, religion–and the most terrifying aspect of this illness is the desire for healthy people to see the disease and its symptoms and desire infection; to desire the disease.
Perhaps this is debatable: another terrifying aspect of this illness is its ability to pass itself off as a cure for a deeper sickness. Once you have the disease, you will forget you didn’t need it; then you become a happy carrier and willing distributor, targeting children and fearful adults. Any belief maintained by fear has the same value as information gained under torture: how do you recognize the difference between the actions of the sick and the healthy?
The limit function is assigned a value, a numerical value that becomes the price of possibility or the cost of failure. One of the reasons for the tremendous success of this mirage is how happy its replicators seem, happy to be flag carrier’s in a distant war only to be lost to time, to die for a combative ideology, a philosophy not even your own.
It seems that after the last ice age human beings imagined a tower of Babel as a way to understand why there are different languages and cultures and, because it was another point unprovable, it was created, another self-fulfilled prophecy. It’s an interesting story. You have the stern reminder of the futility of attaining perfection, a heavily implied punishment for something harmful to no one. Psychologically and philosophically, the disease was contrived and purposed in slow but intrusive ways through the application of misdirection, the appeal to hope, and what becomes the king—Fear.
It is a natural, inherent desire to be acknowledged, to be understood, to have others share in your beliefs. This can go too far, however, and a good indication that it has gone too far is when it becomes necessary for others to accept what you believe as true accepted as true by others. This is how the infected become a drone-mind collective idolizing the preaching Patient Zero, creator of this friendly disease, conveniently working for the cure, or at least the idea that there is a cure. The end game is to live diseased and to spread it as much as possible. It evolves again. It’s in the air. It’s in the school, the courts; it’s everywhere, adapting to changing hopes and fears.
It’s natural to question the origin of need and necessity. If this is the product of disease, it must be explicable in biological terms. Without selection pressures favoring an organism’s ability to perform inception on itself, it wouldn’t have remained in the genepool. I think this is analogous to the favoring of human beings with prodigious abilities in the arts, music, and mathematics. This is another type of peacocking and lends itself to sexual selection. Perhaps without Don Giovanni Mozart wouldn’t have found someone to love. Perhaps Goethe’s success with his first publication The Sorrows of Young Werther had the effect that peacocks with the largest feathers had.
Frequency found; group-think
The capitalistic ideal is individual-based group gathering that appeals to need and greed. When contagious ideas and memes, poltergeists and demons, begin to alter the nature of what an obtainable dream actually is, confirmation bias leads us to believe even harder.
What is the philosophical alternative then, to group-think, to Marco polio? What meaning is there in meaninglessness? This isn’t as emotionally void as it may seem; the search for meaning has a way of defining those who search. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter. It matters and it matters now, as it will always matter in some form or another.
A system that robs people of their individuality is a system that robs people of their identity; to the system’s credit, those who abdicate their personality and allow themselves to be changed by such an ancient system serves only to testify to the quality of that system. That has to be at least respected; the resulting trauma, awkwardness, depression, questions, cynicism–all of this arises from trying on an idea that doesn’t really fit.
It is a false and intentionally cultivated accusation that without faith one has nothing. Rather it is the rejection of a paradoxical portrait between competing points in the same marketplace and it is rejected as a body rejects a poison. The only difference is that this time the poison is no longer inside the person, it is the person: they have become an expression of inherited and airbrushed incredulity in the face of nature, and it gets worse: the externalization of the struggle between the poison and identity sometimes makes the` idea more exciting. Part of the fun of having an idea is debating it with others. Make no mistake; I’m not suggesting that these elaborate mind games we play with ourselves can’t be interesting.
Surrendering to a society in which amenities are based on monetary value, you don’t really have the free will to surrender. The best trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist, rather, as it would seem more likely, is convincing the world that there is an external figure that causes the interlocutor to do wrong. As David Hume believed, the argument for pre-determinism is a means by which personal responsibility can be avoided.
The reason this is a dangerous illusion is because blame and responsibility of our personal choices are projected onto an external evil. Here is the trick: the devil is an idea that imposes itself upon choice due to the inclination for self service, which Freud called the pleasure principle. Money can feed you, buzz you, clothe you, get you laid; the glowing and neon image of this institution is forever young, just like you, and those dancing girls, that alcohol, those dice, that must be wickedness. All of these things are absolutely recommended as every one of them, in moderation, can lead to fun and excitement and sexual release.
The imagined happiness of hereafter can look dull in comparison to the pleasures of this world as they are fleeting excitations against which are imposed impossible admonitions: it’s a cruel judgment when considering that if pre-determinism is correct, those who are guilty were pre-determined or at least presaged guilty whose judgment, despite being foreseen, still warrants punishment.
Another interesting question is at what point an individual belief becomes manifest as a desire to spread, to behave like a virus; and yet another is what form is ultimate if this is penultimate and what the true end-game of this really is, best-case scenario. A possible answer is that this is a zero-game aware of the unwinnable nature of the game. Once the disease is contracted, is there a means by which it can be cured or excised? Yes. The answer is yes. [See The Doctor is Sick.]
The market exists because we want to be pleased. In our most modern city, in New York City, you can get Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s collected works more cheaply than a hotdog, the kind hairy, tattooed old men peddle from modified shopping carts they push around the city looking for starving people.
Food vendors depend on hunger the same way doctors depend on sickness. The overarching connection is the dollar sign, the label and the symbol. The person doesn’t sell an item to a person. It does not simplify and improve the product. It simplifies and degrades the buyer. What I’m trying to say is something William S. Burroughs said much better in Naked Lunch:
‘…The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.’
An addictive carcinogen made by a people who were put to the sword by conquerors has more monetary value than A Tale of Two Cities. When a dollar sign decides what you can eat and how much you can eat and if you can eat, the power it is exercising over you is beyond control. Though the goals of literature and art are more exalted and lasting, you can’t eat Naked Lunch. There are unique ways designed to appeal the opposite of the concept of Marco polio and is itself a type of sickness.
It is perhaps most poignantly expressed in the Buddhist philosophy, the idea that evil is an expression of our selfishness, the desire to feed our ego, what Carl Jung meant by, ‘the dark side of the devil.’ The pig on the stick in Lord of the Flies takes on the shape of the fears of its viewers. This is a similar concept
I came up with the idea for this in the pool behind my mother’s house. Everyone knows that the name Marco doesn’t mean anything and polo is just a response needed to locate, to acquire, to find, to get to another person—to make them it.
Whatever you want to call the acquisition of a systematic pursuit, it is a function of the Marco polio virus: using psychologically suggestive mixed signals. Guilt and fear are just as good at forcing surrender to a competing point by being so ridiculously long winded that agreement is more palatable than debating because of how exhausting it all is. So, give me a television, a cup of coffee, two cars and a nice house, fill it full of books, and that is happiness to some degree.
The awareness of this application and methodology does little to free you of the sickness but it does bring a brief catharsis. But here’s the best part; when we create these monsters, we give them friendly faces, beautiful faces Everyone sees a different mirage yet everyone sees what they need most, what they think is perfect. We can see the mirage and realize it is a mirage, and know that it is an illusion. However, despite how brief this window of time may be, we may find some comfort here, and sometimes that’s enough to make the sickness worth it.
The more we attempt to look at this objectively, the more we try to distance ourselves, the more biased our evaluation becomes. It is the most casual of human conceits to believe in our uniqueness. Even among civilizations; whatever culture we come from, and whatever system of belief and mythology that comes with it, seems more plausible, more special than others. And the world was made for us, and the universe was created, it had to be. To think that one drop of water in a sea is somehow superior to the same drop of water on the other side of the world is to accept a position that denies the authenticity of the ‘other’ water.
It is so perfectly designed, we see; this idea works on an intuitive level because human beings are natural designers. We understand design by means of evaluating purpose observing function. We put ourselves and our cultural relevance ahead of other animals and even ahead of other human beings because of self-bias. It is no different than the communication of ‘ower animals. Dogs do not bark because they wish to be understood. They bark to be heard as children cry, as we do, to know there is some comfort somewhere, to know we’re not alone.
The point is not the product of our creativity; it is the product of waste, the type of waste with aspirations of necessity. This is natural. The way psychoactive mushrooms affect us has been compared to sacred religious experiences. If you eat the right part of the excrete, you’ll meet the point—the point which defines your struggle. There is asymmetry in our perception because of how molecules and symbols interact with the different co-working parts of the brain and consciousness.
A person is a combination of nature, environment, and nurture despite their position in the point/counterpoint debate. It is our raison d’être to look for answers. What doesn’t follow is the acceptance of other’s answers to our questions, questions unique to who we are. It is much more powerful and life-affirming to derive answers from our own experiences and assign value to those answers accordingly than to look for answers created for entire populations, for generalized criteria.
Pre-determinism and free-will together are the best theological examples of doublethink I can image. This is the creation of dualism; the creations of categorization people based on their ideas. A people divided, confused and insecure, are much easier to persuade. The truth can be told with lies; and any suggestion accepted because of what brief relief it provides is, at best, conditional, at worst delusional, yet in all forms ephemeral. The struggle is enough to answer any questions one may need answered.
There is certainly commercial value in tragedy as it speaks to a deeply ingrained need for the alleviation of fear in our own lives by diversion. The results of this are by their very nature divisive, connecting an individual to a hive of the lost looking for their keys under a streetlight, even though the possibility is greater that they aren’t in the light, but the amount of dark is overwhelming, so overwhelming they only look for keys where they are capable of seeing them.
It is natural and unavoidable to be attracted to charisma, confidence, and boisterous rhetoric. The most successful rhetoric affects depth yet offers only confusion. Confusion and novelty does not equal depth. This is why the response to a provable unknown is so overwhelmingly strong: confusion and uncertainty allows for the multiplication of assumed contingencies in deriving truth from nature. Marco polio allows the evaluating area of the mind, that small computer that really makes two water droplets different, to accept relief at the price of dormancy, for no cure but a permanent remission, a salient way of accepting what is unacceptable.
When an unknown is formally assigned a limit function, wherein a is always equal to a and never equal to b; what we’ll accept is predetermined by exclusion. It is, if nothing else, a unique form of solipsism. Despite the fatal flaw with solipsist thinking, at least any idea you come up with on your own has a value the ideas others do not have. It is important to recognize the true face of Marco polio, despite its variation according to individual desire: it is a persistent system, a deaf machine that cannot hear which still cries Marco in the dark, splashing in a pool alone and screaming MARCO! incapable of hearing POLO! if it were to come and still screaming, screaming more if it doesn’t.
For at least 80,000 years (by current estimate) humans have used symbols and signals, and the most arresting symbols appeal most prominently in denoting gain and loss, addition and subtraction. The popularity of the $, even if it’s losing actual value, has supplanted the cross as the type of idea it conveys is more urgent. It’s an easier way to be happy. This is ubiquitous in our culture. What follows that currency donation, is great gain. It’s advertised as a way to make the world what we imagine heaven might be like. I think that it has surpassed the cross as a memetic virus.
The printed word is the most persuasive virus we have. It’s catchy. We wish to identify with authors and artists and composers whom we believe to be cleverer than we. Yet the penultimate authority in every theocracy—a theory that seeks to outlaw questions and inquiry—is a unique source without reference. It’s easier to accept the symbol and what it represents; the successful manipulation of images correlated to thoughts which seek to comfort through pain and punish through loss.
In order to move forward, one must first come to terms with regret and failure, look backward with objective consideration, to stop chasing yesterday and start planning for tomorrow. As vendors rely upon our hunger, and doctors need our weakness, artists need evaluators, and our weakness is no different than what I call Marco polio. I don’t want to be remembered as a great poet or philosopher, artist or composer. Name a disease after me.
EVEN IN THE MOST ORIGINAL AND IMAGINATIVE narratives, it is common to start somewhere identifiable and familiar to the reader. This is a universal element of literature, the establishment of a reference point, a commonality. As much as I would like to start the insanity with the first sentence, and I really, really would, it is inconceivable if you intend to be understood.
In 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most famous sequences in cinema history (the star gate segment) is a long and kaleidoscopic montage of mutating images set to an otherworldly score. This [film] must have been a lot of fun for Stanley Kubrick after working in black and white on Dr. Strangelove, but it would have been impossible to begin the movie this way. People want to go to space, of course, but the operative word here is ‘go.’ As much as people would like to go to space, I doubt they want to wake up floating. They want to get into a familiar and conventional vehicle and travel there.
To develop a means to convey information without reference, one must first have a foundation, a platform, a link to reality. The need for the familiar is the reason Finnegan’s Wake was so divisive; Joyce started in the Twilight Zone without the decency to tell us something was on the wing. Writers begin with the familiar so the unfamiliar, when it comes, will be sensible. So, here goes.
Allegory after the fact has always been a natural companion in storytelling and, in modernity, is perhaps too commonly used to interpret dreams. The most commonly analyzed and interpreted dreams is, arguably, the falling dream which, to explain it simply, is just a dream in which the sensation of falling is experienced. The imagery this conjures is itself artless enough, but it has been gifted a sort of unique symbolism and depth in pop-philosophy and psychology. The setting is unimportant and the dreamer’s association with falling is not in relationship to a place from which or to which they’re falling. The issue is that you are falling. There are many ways to look at this.
It is a popular view, or was when I studied psychology, that the falling dream is an unconscious representation of something that is bothering you consciously. Falling, in this sense, is synonymous with failing. I don’t think this is always true, but for the moment we’ll assume this is true. It is synonymous with losing, also, in most of these interpretations.
The psychological viewpoint that this is an unconscious response to a conscious crisis is limited and fundamentally flawed; a conscious assessment of the unconscious is possible only in retrospect when viewed as a scene from the perspective of the third person. For a person taking part in a rollercoaster ride, it’s often impossible for that person to explain it in sensible terms, in terms not abstract or expressionistic. For an observer it is a scene. Those within the scene can’t always derive meaning from it. To a third-person, the show can be evaluated in a way in which someone in the show may be incapable.
There are many types of falling dreams listed in Dreams and Their Interpretations: losing balance, pushed, location, lost grip, holding on, people, how did you fall, slipping, and somebody help. This purports to approach this from a subconscious perspective, but any attempt to consciously describe the subconscious with breadth and depth is usually doomed to fail. The concept of depth in literature is attached to depth within character. The modern conception of depth is based on surface and layers. The surface, in this instance, is the conscious personality.
The conscious personality reacts to stimuli and information. A modern way of explaining this behavior is based on the simple observation that people actively, that is consciously, choose what they know is bad for them. Statements like this aren’t intended to encompass the entire population, but a significant minority.
It’s rare in ‘lower’ animals for behavior to manifest that the animal knows is to its detriment. Evolution has worked so well because it works to maximize the viability of an organism. Since it is inconceivable to think that evolution, which favors the survival of the most successful groups of genes, would select animals that intentionally harm themselves, we built a human discipline to describe human beings in human terms. Since this is rare in other, less intelligent animals, it is looked at in psychological terms.
Psychology and philosophy are branches of academia in which students attend college to learn questions instead of answers; like Jeopardy where, instead of winning money, you pay to play and you never get to be on television. The philosophy behind psychology is based on assumptions regarding the intent behind action and reaction. The most prevalent assumption is that behavioral patterns can be understood through profiling. The success of profiling is not a testament to the validity of the assumptions behind it which are often based on pattern recognition and inference. I’m not saying that profiling is based on incorrect assumptions: I’m saying that profiling doesn’t have to be based on correct assumptions in order to work.
This purports to be an explanation of a dream wherein the dreamer is losing balance:
“Dreams of losing balance suggests [sic] that the problem lays [sic] within you. You are not stable in this moment and need grounding in your life. You need to find more ways to become more confident with people and yourself.”
This is too broad to encompass the way everybody feels. The first suggestion is that the solution of the problem is within the subconscious. This is to suggest that the solution to the problem comes from the same source as the problem. You can look at this in a simpler yet more profound way. Emotionally, losing balance can suggest any number of real issues. Loss [the deprivation] of balance [stability] is a simple scene, without giving expression to what it ‘represents.’ Losing balance and falling is a naked idea. Most ideas in dreams are naked, unequivocal; when a dream is explained, there is an unspoken desire for meaning to be gifted to it. If you’re clever enough, you can take the loose association of images and impulses found in dreams and give it meaning; you can give it surface depth.
Losing balance, as defined by the dream dictionary, is a very superficial connection-correlation-conclusion approach to psychology. It is equally possible for something positive to make you lose balance; you could be falling in love. It can be a positive. Psychology seems to have more enthusiasm for negativity than positivism in their interpretations. Perhaps it increases the quality of drama in your personal life.
This is the appeal of psychology. It allows for depth to be created in people who don’t have it; yet, for some reason, would like to think they do. Psychologists, in describing dreams, put them into the context of dressed ideas and naked ideas.
A dressed idea in aesthetics can refer to a painting of something that is a representation of something else. For example, most Caravaggio paintings work on the dressed ideas as representation level. The easy thing about allowing dressed ideas to represent naked ideas is that it circumvents the need for individual consideration; that is to say it negates what an individual might develop within themselves to give true meaning to the idea.
A revealed revelation is the literary equivalent of an author or artist putting a lot of time and effort into saying oh for you. This might not sound like much of a compliment, but it’s less reproachful for someone to think you’d enjoy saying oh for yourself than it would be to deliberately mislead you. It might take more time. It might cost you energy and effort. But—trust me—when you say oh for yourself, there is a level of understanding taking place that isn’t possible when someone is saying oh for you. ‘Oh’ is the noise our brain makes when something is understood.
To allow someone to understand for themselves, and think for themselves, is to respect the intelligence of your readers. And the most important part of being considerate requires you to first be less considerate—to deny the evaluator access to anything capable of defining the experience for themselves; the answer must be undressed. The reason an audio/video recording of a dream will never be recognized by the dreamer as their dream is because most of what is conveyed is conveyed without images or sounds, at least not images or sounds recognizable in waking life. If this recording was possible, the agreement on what it actually is intended to mean would never be agreeable to all; sounds and images mean different things to different people.
A dream can be as simple as the sound of a car horn, a repeating red number one, or a Barbie doll hanging itself. If you made the representation of this absolute, that is to say that it would be absolutely the same for everyone who dreamed it, I doubt it would be possible for any relevant percentage to ever agree on what it was they actually dreamed. Evaluating dreams as image/idea representation, or dressed ideas, is to take away the subjective nature of dreaming. Regardless of how we remember our dreams, while they’re taking place, trust me, they’re much different in our memory than they were in action. To me, the psychoanalytical approach to interpreting dreams is a type of convoluted incest wherein the only real meaning is individualistic.
The conceit that another person can mold your dream into a generalized pattern (based on representations that don’t mean the same to all evaluators) is unhealthy, lazy, and encourages people to look at their dreams in a way that presupposes depth and meaning because of novelty. This is the opposite process of wanting to see something in beautiful clothes without those beautiful clothes. A losing balance dream is a concept revealed for you based on simplistic image idea correlation. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the clothes are. This is true for most, if not all, imaginative people: although a beautiful and elaborate costume may enhance someone’s beauty, what it enhances to an appreciative onlooker is the desire to see the beautiful and elaborate costume taken off.
Letting someone else dress or interpret the thoughts brought to life in dreams can sometimes lead to a false sense of understanding; but since it’s convenient and seems deep and meaningful, it is generally accepted. To say this simply: when someone uses clothes to enhance sex appeal, the clothes are best at enhancing someone else’s desire to see them removed.
Association begins after waking as we’re trying to make sense of what we just experienced. So we cast our dreams in the mold of allegory. This is a trick we use to make sense of something that makes no sense. It is something we do unconsciously, but it’s easy to see why we do it. It gives our dreams cinematic and literary quality. Description and meaning are not synonymous. In that context, imply and suggest are synonymous.
We have a rich literary and artistic history of parody, satire, irony, allegory, suggestion, and inference. When an inference is understandable, that doesn’t mean that it’s right or applicable. I can understand someone using their dream as a subconscious allegory for their lives. This sort of correlation between representation and meaning is weak, but it makes sense. When something makes sense, that’s all it does. Making sense is not synonymous with being correct.
Books and films and television programmes have a rich history of using allegory and symbolism. Allegory is a literary device that allows you to say one thing and mean something else. Symbolism as a literary device is most often used to echo or draw attention to thematic elements within a story. Being an evaluator of this naturally leads us to think about our own ideas in this way. The point we miss is how often the allegory being used is being used by the author with specific correlations in mind. The same is true of symbolism.
When symbolism is used in a story, the writer or director is using it to highlight an element within their story. It’s important to remember that our dreams are not stories, movies, or allegories intended by a ‘meta-mind’ somehow overreaching our conscience. Just because we can make them work this way does not mean this is how they function.
It is a modern symptom to feel cheated when it is obvious that something is being hidden. There are a number of reasons for this, but the deepest is suspicion. It is a distressing sign to see someone cover something you suspect would be more attractive uncovered. It is distressing because there is a disconnect between what you want to be the truth and what the truth actually is.
If we viewed our dreams from the third-person perspective, attaining that narrative ability, dreams would become sterile, plastic symbols; suggesting, but never approaching, anything that could be considered depth. When an artist relies too much on symbolism and equivocation, it is often the sign of a terrible artist. The job of the writer is to allow the reader to make the connections presented to them; to undress the ideas for themselves, to make connections to other aspects of the story and aspects of their own lives; this is the equivalent of communion among strangers, separated by space and time.
THE POETIC SENSIBILITY
IN WRITING A BOOK IN PART DEDICATED TO writing and how it is done and understood, I must acknowledge the bitter truth: there is no way to teach the poetic sensibility and practice will not cultivate it. The poetic sensibility is either present in you, or evolves as you come of age. No matter how much you study or emulate the techniques and practices I’m trying to illustrate (and attempting to demonstrate,) without the eye—without the sensibility—technical precision means nothing.
If you were to see a willow tree expelling pollen, what type of correlation can be made to imbue this image with poetry? When a willow tree is expelling pollen, it is raining DNA and therefore life itself is literally raining from the sky. It is this type of correlation that gives poetic color to the familiar.
During the time I spent in New York City, a city full of aesthetic art-deco architecture and historical sites steeped in lore and legend, the most striking and poetic visual I encountered was a solitary flower just outside The Strand, a book store teeming with beautiful and colorful poetry. What made this image so memorable was how it stood in absentia of other flowers of its type. The reason for it being there was, to me, unknown, but it was there, fledgling, struggling to get the light blotted out by the monoliths of our civilization. I knelt beside the flower to see how it was getting any light. And I discovered something I didn’t think was possible. The flower wasn’t receiving light directly; it was growing from reflections cast, and shafts of bent light through skyscraper windows.
It was lit by Pale Fire, a line from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, later appropriated by Vladimir Nabokov in his book of the same name. The flower and the book became intimately linked. This imbued an ordinary flower with a rich, four-dimensional history, a history from which an entire world of embedded poetry can spring.
I have thought about that flower a lot, what kind of flower it was, and what happened to its kind. Which, in itself, brought to mind the published work of Tupac Shakur, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. I had never seen this kind of flower before and it really hadn’t bloomed, but it seemed to be trying.
In Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, the narrative voice alternates between two fictional characters, John Shade–the author of the 999 line poem and his editor, a foreigner from Zembla by the name of Charles Kinbote. The element that is most remarkable, to me, is how Shade believes that by writing about the universe, we gain understanding of it.
In one of the best works of literature ever written, and my personal favorite, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or as it is alternatively translated, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel does the equivalent of creating what may be the first four dimensional novel in history, as every object is imbued with an unspoken, associative history to later be recalled spontaneously.
The important aspect of Proust’s art is its lack of equivocation and bombast; although it is related to points in time, it is not necessarily allegorical in nature. Dissertations can expound upon and bring a better awareness of recurring elements within the novel, but it’s all pretty much right there. For example, in the version that I read, the narrator Marcel, who is not Proust, recalls a moment when he dips Madeline cake into tea and it produces a type of transcendent state of being, and it causes him, as a child, to hear a sort of holy music. He uses time and object association instead of symbol and idea representation, although he does both, but it is later when he is in his own home, as he relates in a collection published under his name On Art and Literature, he dips his toast in tea and that intangible, holy music comes back to him some thirty years after the original experience. This would later be reproduced in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past.
The idea that dipping bread into tea can trigger such moments is the art, and the poetic value of it is in the spontaneity in which it forces itself to the forefront of the poet’s mind. These are not recollections or déjà vu; these are relived sensations, tying points in time together.
More has been written about Marcel Proust than just about any other writer since his time, with the exception of perhaps Nabokov and Hemingway, so I don’t intend to turn this into a dissertation on Proust. There are over four thousand pages in Remembrance of Things Past, so there is far more in its pages than any critic, despite their acuity, has the ability, or the time, to unpack. Howard Moss’s The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust is the best condensation of the leviathan work of world literature, along with a wonderful book by Jonah Lehrer, a beautiful marriage of science and art; Proust Was a Neuroscientist. [Nabokov] offered his opinion in his collection, Lectures on Literature. So we’ll move along. Nothing to see here.
An example that will not be universally agreed upon as being poetic, is one of the most touching moments of mutual consolation in literature, and comparable to A Tutti Contente, from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The prevalent interpretation (which is brought to the fore in Salieri’s analysis in the film Amadeus)of consolation in this opera takes place when the man, who began the story in joyous exaltation, in the measuring of his marriage bed, becomes disenchanted with his wife, and in A Tutti Contente, speaks the only kind words he has spoken to her in months because he believes she is someone else. It is this type of consolation to be found in the most memorable scene in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.
A little context: Raskolnikov is a penniless student an ex-tutor who has resorted to murder; the murder of an elderly pawn broker and, to compound his crime, the murder of her invalid sibling. That’s just dirty pool, Radia. Although the intention is robbery, Raskolnikov is seen throughout the early part of the novel giving away money only acquired by pawning invaluable, personal items; a silver cigarette case, his father’s watch. For example, he leaves money for the drunken Marmeladov’s family when he leaves his home, knowing he has no more money, and no way to get any. And once he has committed the murder, he hides the plunder under a stone and then never makes use of it. His punishment is not the punishment of the crime by law, it is the punishment endured by the guilty conscience shrinking under an ideal he no longer believes in.
The scene I’m referring to, I’ve been told, is not in most English translations of Pretuplene e Nakazami due to the amount of Russian Mat found in the original. Russian Mat is an organized language of obscenity in the Russian speaking world, a type of slang used by the vulgar and profane. The scene to which I refer takes place between the prostitute Sofya (Marmeladov’s daughter) and the murderer Raskolnikov after Marmeladov’s death. After confessing to his crime to Sofya, she forgives him, and he responds by kissing the prostitute’s feet.
This may not translate into poetry or romance for everyone, but to me it’s one of the most memorable moments in the history of literature, even if it’s not included in the English translations, or even if I misread the Russian copy I had. Either is possible, and it might be an invented memory, but it is undeniably poetic. There is more beauty in this than all the rotating rom-com reunion shots in cinema and it takes place between a murderer and a prostitute. So, my sense of what qualifies as poetic may be questionable.
To look at another example that can be considered questionable, Anna Karenina’s choice to be alone in a grave rather than alone in a world without love, is also a poetic gesture. And by poetic gesture, she throws herself in front of a train and dies. Moments of tragedy have been imbued with poetry from the beginning of human literature. Consider what leads to Hamlet’s most famous scene (well, that is debatable; as nearly everything he says is an exercise in what the poetic sensibility should be,) in which he speaks to the skull of a jester, a familial friend he had known as a child, yes: Yorick. A fellow of infinite jest, I’m told.
The juxtaposition of the macabre (he is holding the skull of a former friend whom he adoration) and the beautiful elaboration on the character of Yorick is what makes the scene work so well. This is how the terrible can be beautiful; it just takes the right sensibility to put it together. This leit-motif of memento mori was common for the time. It also hints at how time modifies memory and change events based on changing the emotion associated with its memory: ‘He hath bore me on his back a thousand times’ can be distorted, (he describes it as abhorrent.) This is a scene of a man talking to the skull of a dead and beloved friend and it is poetic and beautiful.
This is how the correlation between the leit-motif of memento mori (Remember, you’re going to die) and the response to this is the contemplation of legacy (Please do not think about your legacy before you die, you’ll die earlier just to enhance it) and the transience of earthly beauty. It can be argued that one of the most beautiful and most quoted poems of all time, Edward Fitzgerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, is ostensibly dedicated—depending on the interpretation—to telling you that you’re going to die, but this has beauty in it, so, Khayyam suggests, drink wine. Or at the very least, don’t let the fact that everything you have is going to be taken no matter what you do take away from what you do enjoy.
The moving finger writes, and having writ,
Nor all thy piety, nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out one word of it.
The poetic sensibility arises in people who see change as a never-ending process and that it is the transience of life that gives us the incentive to hold dear to us such beauty. Poetics is the application of human sensibilities mixed with linguistic skill. You don’t have to be a walking dictionary to do poetry properly. Dr. Seuss wrote one of the most famous works in English literature, Green Eggs and Ham, with one-hundred and fifty words. Ulysses, by James Joyce, on the other hand, uses about 25,000-30,000 words. But there is one part in which the juxtaposition of the unchangeable and the changeable are somewhat inverted when Bloom discusses with Stephen the death of his son, Rudy, who died at eleven days, although he doesn’t imagine him this way; he imagines him at eleven years, and through this poetic license and imprint, something resembling immortality emerges. But even that is ephemeral.
When we’re held accountable for our civilization, what survives the ravages of time to represent our souls, our art and culture will probably not be recognizable, or considered degenerate, to the species that will inevitably succeed us. What then is truly immortal within systems of expression? Well, in our case, it is the need to express. It is definitive.
Works of expression can define entire epochs. Consider Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock; it defined a generation, not through its accuracy, but in the details, through its clumsy humanity. You can hear bombs dropping, sirens blaring–the sounds of chaos, but in the end, he finishes it off perfectly, with resolution. It’s not intended to be perfectly rendered, anyone can do something with technical precision and accuracy, but the clumsy, flailing, jarring notes of individuality; it is clumsy, frail, on the cusp between definition and degradation–and that is why it’s so definitively human.
The poetic sensibility is what separates photographs, taken by photographers, from van Gogh paintings, because there is (or so I’ve been told) imperfection in his representation of nature. Unless he saw the world in a way people who criticize him do not–people who admire the perfection of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but scoff at Vincent van Gogh’s talent. He is to be maligned because he saw the world in a way only people with this sensibility could see. That’s the point of all the chaos in his brushstrokes. It is the chaos of his mind and that is what we’re looking at in his paintings, not landscapes, but mindscapes, dependent upon our poetic sensibility to understand the consolation granted through such chaos.
Yes, he could paint. He could paint as realistically as anyone at that time could. In an era where a machine can do what only the best of masters could a century earlier, van Gogh found a way to make representations human again. In fact nearing the later stages of his life, Rembrandt, considered by many to be the finest portrait painter the world has ever seen, began to go in a direction that would have become what van Gogh did had he lived. His dishonored masterpiece–the one of the barbarian’s lair–is a primordial example of expressionism, where the artistry is evident in the passion of the strokes as much as it is in the accuracy of the depiction.
Simon Schama said it best when he said that, at a certain point in Rembrandt’s life, he stopped carrying about the ‘noisy, outward show’ of life and turned on a ‘quiet, inner radiance.’ This inner radiance is what vibrates on the canvas of Starry Night Over the Rhyne, the other Starry Night painted by Vincent van Gogh. It was revolutionary and completely new, and it took a generation, and van Gogh’s death, to vindicate him and realize what he had done as genuinely revolutionary.
You cannot change the way someone sees the world. And it’s true to say the poetic sensibility can be nurtured and sharpened, it cannot be given to someone. You can be taught about poetic traditions, poetic techniques and styles and masters of poetics, but you can’t be taught the sensibility required to be authentically poetic.
It has been said that no class on philosophy can substitute for enough hours spent watching the world from a bus window. Anyone who has spent more than ten consecutive hours looking out a window becomes, for that duration, a philosopher. If constraint can turn someone into a philosopher, what, if anything, can turn someone into a poet?
Thinking. Seeing patterns and important correlations between things of no importance independently. It doesn’t always work. Studying the work of other poets can help you, as long as you know how to incorporate what you know without imitating.
I’ve done other work, essays and novels and plays and what not, but the way Victorian classic verse conveys a sense of music in tone and meter is my favorite way of composing. I was first acquainted with it the way many of my friends in the South were: through the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, a poet to which I have been compared for my stylistic approach. The reason for the comparison is probably not (solely) considerate of style; but more of readership in America, or at least in the American south.
At any given point you may be able to recall to mind maybe, at most, one hundred artists to which you could accurately define as poetic. If only 300 people in the population have the proper sense of the poetic, what percentage of the population is that?
It’s not exactly encouraging to see what percentage of the population individuals constitute: .0000000428571429% is the percentage of the world that is you, that was Balzac, Chekhov, Mozart and Mary Shelley. If we suppose that across the language barrier there are 10 million poets, our access is fundamentally limited; the National Virtual Translation Center recognizes around 7,000 languages. The most erudite of intellectuals can lay claim to fluency in 3 to 5 of those languages, so that severely limits the ability for poets in the rest of those languages to be considered.
I wrote most of this chapter at a bar with a friend of mine in Anderson, SC. I asked her to name five poets.
She named Brandon Nobles (an up-and-comer with great potential and talent, I hear) Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (I expect she was being deliberately facetious.) If one considers how many languages there are, and compares that to how many they can name, well, I’ll say this: it doesn’t make you feel important.
I have studied language for the better part of my life and I’d claim true fluency in two languages; I have a good grasp of Italian, French, and German, and know enough of the rest just to get by. The fluency of which I speak amounts to being able to read and write in the language, the ability to debate science and philosophy, and the ability for thorough knowledge of synonyms and puns. It takes years. And people have jobs and other such stuff to do. If it’s not important to their life, or in some way improves it, it isn’t important enough to spend years learning.
So, grant the linguistic and philology students about 5 languages to work with among 7,000, and this brings down the percentage of poets available to reach you considerably. To an English speaker, W.B. Yeats may be the final word on classical, Victorian poetry; that is because classical, Victorian poetry is the only poetry that falls within their purview. This is no slight on people who major in English. If it takes years to learn to appreciate the poetry of Sun Tzu in its native tone, the original is going to only disturb the way your anticipation of language syntax is structured and become obtrusive upon fond memories of prior translations. Ask me how I know.
An English translation will, for 99% of the population, suffice for anyone wishing to study The Art of War. The same is true of the beauty of the Arabian Nights, the Songs of Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes from the Christian Holy Bible, and the aforementioned Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which, after learning enough poetry to appreciate the tone in its original—I preferred the English translation, the tone, the structure, everything about it appealed to my English sensibilities.
So when an English poet believes one poet to be superior to another, particularly a poet whose work is being read in translation, nobody flinches. Someone who pipes up and says ‘read it in its native language’ are just like those people who say of inadequate movie adaptations ‘read the books!’ And they’re assholes for so doing.
It’s important to recognize that different languages are, for the main part, different in more areas than sound arrangement and script. The arrangement of the words is different and (can) be unnatural to the native English speaker. The linguistic typology is different. Consider Irish (or Gaelic), a verb-subject-object language. The English rendering of Phil walked home, is in Gaelic rendered Home walked Phil. In subject-object-verb languages, it would be Sam home walked. There are subject-verb-object languages, like English and Russian, then there are verb-object-subject languages, like Baure and Malagasy, in which the rendering would be Walked Sam home.
There are object-verb-subject and object-subject-verb languages as well, and most of these methods of writing are entirely alien to English speakers. A better run-down of this can be found in Charles F. Meyer’s Introducing English Linguistic International, Student Edition and in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.) Basic Word Order: Functional Principles by Russell S. Tomlin is good too, if somewhat out of date.
It is disheartening and hard to accept, for me at least, that there is a world of poetry being written that will never fall into my purview. This limits us to popular poets; and poetry, in the new millennium takes place within music. Modern music and lyrics have taken the spot once reserved for poetry to convey poetic ideas. There is genuine poetry to be found in music of all sorts; there is poetry in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Alkan, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin; there is poetry in modern music, hip-hop, by its very nature, lends itself to poetic intention and execution.
When I began this essay, I mentioned correlation and representation as important elements of poetry. There is a song by Tupac, which I will discuss for a moment, which works with correlation and representation in a grand way: Thugs Mansion. I know it may seem as though I’m breaking some intellectual rule by even mentioning rap (I like basketball too! Go ahead, judge me) but it is the poetry of modern America, for good or ill. While I believe that emotions are best expressed through tone and atmosphere, that’s not the end of consideration. For example, consider this verse, the first in Thugs Mansion:
A place to spend my quiet nights,
Time to unwind,
So much pressure in this life of mine; I cry at times.
I once contemplated suicide,
And would’ve tried,
But when I held that nine
All I could see was my mama’s eyes.
No one knows my struggles;
They only see the trouble– Not knowing it’s hard to carry on When no one loves you.
The reason this works, despite the directness, is because of the directness. Before Tupac, poetry in rap was described pejoratively as backpacking; by blending poetry and the streets, a form of hip-hop that has been imitated by just about everyone since Tupac. Rakim. NWA, and Public Enemy were excellent social critics in their own right; Rakim would be an outstanding intellectual, on par with a professor in technical lyricism if he didn’t think he had to be an Islamic muller when he backpacks.
Tupac gave poetic expression to the struggles of black people in America during an era in which black Americans were reliving a sort of civil rights struggle. I won’t pretend to know what it’s about, because I don’t know what it’s like to be black. But this voice, running the streets, carrying guns was given a conscience. Tupac was certainly imbued with the poetic sensibility and enjoyed popularity in his lifetime, but his death drew a lot more attention to his message. From Changes.
“I made a G today.”
But you made it in a sleazy way, Sellin’ crack to the kids.
“But I gotta get paid.”
Hey, that’s the way it is.
The importance of this stanza cannot be overstated. People put into situations such as poverty are not always acting immorally; it is not immoral to do what you have to do to survive. Giving voice to this struggle is what made Tupac a success, an icon of late 20th century hip-hop. He was a poet, with the poetic sensibility, who just happened to use hip-hop stylings to get it out. Another example of poetics in mainstream hip-hop can be seen in Eminem’s better work.
On his second mainstream release, Eminem produced two songs that touched on so many themes inherent in poetry that, by twenty-six, his legacy was cemented as more than a rapper; he was a satirist with a high awareness of the messages he was able to convey and Stan was a thoughtful piece of social commentary as well as being a genuinely lovely piece of music. Stan may be his most critically applauded work because it works on many, many levels, touching on a number of themes; obsession, mental illness, misplaced love, rage, alienation, and isolation. And it does it to the strains of Dido’s famous refrain, ‘My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why, I got out of bed at all.’
It uses multiple narrative voices. Stan, the eponymous obsessed fan; the lamentations of his girlfriend are being echoed in the chorus, and the target of the misplaced affection, the artist, responding in the end. The equivocation that works the most is the evocation of another work of art, In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins, and its explicit connection to how the letter writer, Stan, feels about what has happened to him emotionally. This juxtaposition of the romanticism within the refrain, the slow degeneration of the fan’s ego, and a perfect correlation that demonstrates the relationship between works of art in a unique brand of anaphora and thematic echo within the piece:
You know the song by Phil Collins
In the Air of the Night,
About that guy who could have saved that other guy
Then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?
That’s kinda how this is; you could’ve rescued me
But now it’s too late;
I’m on a thousand downers now I’m drowsy.
And all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call.
I hope you know I ripped all your pictures off the wall.
I loved you Slim, we could’ve been together;
Think about it.
You ruined it now; I hope you can’t sleep,
And you dream about it,
And when you dream I hope you can’t sleep
And you scream about it
I hope your conscience eats at you, And you can’t breathe without me.
This correlation between In the Air Tonight and the urban legend, about the drowning man, and the way the narrator feels about a life being derailed is a good example of art referencing art to tie thematic elements together. Depression manifests itself in many different ways. To typify it and associate it with drowning works because Stan drives his car over a bridge and in the end he drowns. It is conveyed with genuine anger. Not only has his desire to be acknowledged turned into hatred, it turns into the active desire to elicit pain in the same artist from whom he once found joy. It is more than a poem; it is a modern fable, and it changed the climate of what hip-hop was in the early 2000’s–for better or for worse—and set a new standard for intimacy in rap.
The setup and framework in establishing different narrative voices, the fan, the girlfriend (who is to die in the trunk of the car), and the conclusion letter sent by the target of the affection, uses many different poetic techniques to great effect; repetition there at the end (anaphora) of ‘and…’ and the chorus keeps the melancholic atmosphere pervasive throughout the song. At the beginning, the opening bars are sang to the sound of raindrops and the storm changes throughout the song, ends with the artist’s disbelief at what obsession and misplaced affection can do to someone psychologically. It works as a piece of poetry and a psychological exploration of fandom and hero worship.
The psychosexual element is a product of this identification with the object of affection, and by proxy is a means by which the fan can love himself, by loving his object of desire. The tearing down of his fan-inspired imagery, after he’s made an identification with the object, is a way of beginning to dismantle parts of himself. To look at this from the perspective of the person writing the piece, is to look at warring aspects of the ego–which adds a decidedly psychological element to the process of excising this demon. If I were to interpret the expression behind the writer’s decorative language, I would say, after looking within the piece, we look outside the piece at the circumstances and era in which it was written. There’s the microcosm, within the poem, and the macrocosm, outside; the writer is writing about the impact of writing. And exploring the impact of one’s writing is metaphysical and projectionist in nature. It is a way to externalize our own suffering and perhaps from it find catharsis or even comfort. It is this catharsis that leads so many to choose writing as a profession. It functions as psychoanalysis, a way to explore your fear and desire, and allows you to explore different aspects of humanity.
I leave you with the poem I wrote in response to that lone flower outside of The Strand;
It was a flower, not a brand,
On the sidewalk by the Strand.
Surrounded by those monoliths
Was this fledgling life unplanned.
Nobody stopped to notice;
Blinding light such shadows cast,
Surviving on pale fire,
The reflections through the glass.
It wasn’t in the scheme of things, not this,
It had no plan;
A miracle of nature to be paved away by man.
Leaving Time Square, with books, I went,
Back home to read, to work, to rent,
A place to stay, long moments spent;
Thinking of that flower, that pale fire,
Where it came from, where it went,
Once someone had to dig it up,
And replace it with cement.
Speaker for the Dead
FOR THE AMERICAN RAPPER AND POET TUPAC Shakur, who performed under the stage name 2pac until his death, Changes was, upon release, considered to be a step backward from a groundbreaking and impressive career. Though I won’t shame the critic by naming him, the critic believed that the gospel stylings in the chorus and the piano was pandering to white audiences. This may not be necessarily true on 2psc’s part; but not keeping his music exclusive to a particular culture is in the spirit of equality and therefore something to be applauded.
I don’t think this is what brought the white audience in; I think this is the musical equivalent of Ray Charles recording Georgia. It strayed away from his usual fair and, when that happens in an artist’s career, there is always the accusation of pandering, selling out, or backsliding; I think by branching out into different styles of music 2pac was able to bring in a larger audience. This is what solidified 2pac as more than just a bad boy or a thug, and turned him into a social commentator and poet.
He still had the image of the bad boy of gangster rap when Changes was released; it showed not only an unprecedented cultural and political perspective in hip-hop, but in the long run humanized a caricature, making his message harder to dismiss. Now his most well-known and beloved song, it was once named as one of his 10 worst by Rolling Stone.
If there’s any correlation between another person’s attempt at artistry which, upon release, was considered backsliding, it was The Shining by Stanley Kubrick; a man who brought us some of the most famous and revered scenes and movies in the history of cinema throughout his career, including the proverbial ‘good’ science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visionary films ever made, despite audiences understanding it as much as the apes at the beginning of the film understood the obviously unnatural monolith. They didn’t understand it, but it changed something in them, awakened a new capacity. Keep this in mind.
To look at The Shining with modern eyes, we see one of the most iconic horror films ever made, an enduring, unnerving classic full of immortal moments; a masterpiece one could say, and one of the finest pieces of film to ever to be screened. There are many people, having watched it in the past few years, who had, by innumerable pop-culture references, seen almost every scene in the film in one medium or another; that’s how ubiquitous it is in modern culture, standing as a cultural milestone in film history. Bear with me; the relationship between The Shining and Changes will be made clear.
Stanley Kubrick is responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket— all of which received enormous critical success and frequently turn up on Top 10 and Top 100 lists. Then there was The Shining, for which Stanley Kubrick, a man responsible for masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece, received a worst director nomination for the Razzies. Worst director.
Lies are often referred to as scandals, but it’s not off the mark to consider some truths to be just as scandalous, if not more so, than your run of the mill scandal. Especially in The Shining; we are here confronted with terrors much worse than the fictions of the werewolf or the vampire, the mummy or the ghosts: there are things in this world more terrible than vampires and werewolves, mummies and warlocks and Plans 1-9 From Outer Space, and they are more terrible because they are real, and even more terrible because they’re common.
These are houses haunted by the living, living amid child abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence. This is the relationship between 2pac’s Changes, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The horror in these poetic works is the horror of the real world. Discounting whatever Kubrick was going for with the ending, the abusive father and husband, an alcoholic and egotist, terrorizes his family in very real, very human ways. And 2pac’s Changes evokes the same sense of real life horror. The horror is not in its novelty, its singularity; the horror is in its frequency, its pervasiveness—not only in American slums but around the world.
They are both horror stories, hauntings, and Changes is a world of teenage ghosts who died for shoes or change; shot in the streets for their watch or misplaced rage stemming from hopelessness and a crushing sense of futility, their spirits giving resonance to the evocative but ironically flat and passive refrain, ‘hey, that’s the way it is,’ – a quietus, acknowledged as an accepted absurdity in wistfulness, and these young men and women imbue the delicacies of the piano sampling, the echo effects being reminiscent of the lost; echoes as they are, emanations Tupac channels in his lyrics. The horrors in this song aren’t just a family trapped in a haunted house; it’s a nation trapped in haunted house full of the ghosts of racism, poverty, distrust and vendetta.
In a concrete prison, each war a maze of alleyways to nowhere, a Minotaur at the end of every corner, a world transformed into a permanent purgatory and Tupac expresses this purgatory and the nonchalance, or suspected nonchalance of the ineffectual response in government. This is what upset the stomach of the 5 star restaurant crowd, putting them off their lobster and linguini; a land of the free in which an entire culture is without the afforded liberty to give expression to their rage and their confusion and their anger. In a way that Shakespeare gave the English a sense of who they were, what their struggles were to be in life, Tupac Shakur was this to millions of people in ghettos and poverty stricken neighborhoods.
With some of the best lyrical structures of his career, and a chorus channeling the ghosts to whom Tupac is giving voice, add up to a socially conscious song that, in the abstract, encapsulated a confused point in a culture’s arrested evolution caught between inarticulate screaming and a measured, silent response to a government unconcerned with poverty stricken neighborhoods.
2pac the rapper is a character within the song, and Tupac the person is as well, as a cynic, an optimist, and social critic, as well as what would get him dubbed a preacher and a visionary. There is also another narrative voice, the common man, the streetwalker, trapped by debt and lack of economic opportunity. Drug trafficking in these communities is rigorously opposed by cops. This is by design.
The likelihood of going to college is low; a high school diploma guarantees nothing. They are left in a permanent economic depression, a limbo somewhere between poverty and lower class.
Selling crack is perhaps the biggest cliché about ghetto culture and is used as a way to malign someone’s character. It is not a reflection of the moral decay of an individual; it’s a reflection of the decay at the root of a system that creates beggars—starvation in between buffets.
Drugs are gasoline for cars that cannot run on gas, or cars that can but just can’t will themselves to do so; it is fuel for working cars that think they’re broken. Changes is a rich literary work and will take some effort to unpack and do a proper critical study; but, as this is kind of what this book is for, that’s what’s going to happen.
Perspectives emerge through contextual correlation. It begins with Tupac the person reflecting from the perspective of the streetwalker narrator, a narrator whose perspective is from a life of drugs and crime and violence, an exaggerated parody of what Tupac’s critics believed him to be; this voice comes in after the first two lines. This is a thematic response to contrary perspectives within the stanza. Tupac reflects before it’s made implicit; as it is a written piece, it isn’t necessary to be linear to make a cohesive whole.
The first line sees Tupac the person–the person behind songs like this, not 2pac the rapper behind songs like Hail Mary– waking up; this has been related to enlightenment, to a heightened awareness, and it is an ancient dramatic device which evokes the revelatory and poignant by appealing to the best within us all.
The first lines come chronologically, within the song, after the first lines are spoken, as the first two lines are a reflection of the third and fourth lines. The streetwalker narrator’s interplay with Tupac the person plays a big part in the first verse; the contrast between someone living the life and someone reflecting on that life.
It is possible, if not probable, that the contrast is between what a person is–disenchanted with being a streetwalker– reflecting on the way they were preemptively to provide context for such remarks, as they’re often augmented by the Tupac voice before they’re made or immediately–sometimes midline–after they’re spoken. Tupac the thug shows up too, in later lines, but Tupac the person begins in reflection:
I see no changes;
Wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living, should I blast myself?
If the change is not between different narrative aspects, it is interesting to consider: the narrator’s first thoughts upon awakening are of suicide.
I’m tired of feeling poor, and even worse, I’m black My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.
By immediately linking crime to poverty the discourse is forced to look at the roots of crime, to poverty. The character is being imbued with a crisis of conscience because of what he feels is necessary just to eat. The suggestion that criminals are not by default born to be criminals again asks the listener to consider what can justify the actions behind this kind of crime and the character behind the actions of what used to be easily dismissible criminals without motive beyond self-gratification.
It may be this realization that led to the initial crisis:: the likelihood of positive change taking place in his lifetime can seem to be a naïve dream. In the face of hopelessness, many people feel that suicide is the only answer, which leads to the following, highly charged interplay between Tupac the person and the streetwalker narrator.
Cops give a damn about a negro,
Pull the trigger, kill a nigger, He’s a hero.
As irreverent as this sentiment seems, it is a harsh, but sharp analysis of life as seen through the eyes only a poet or philosopher can put to use; to take in knowledge for storage is education; education and creativity is the synthesis through which true intelligence is expressed. Genius is the degree of poignancy and depth the expression possesses.
The poet is always present; as you can see how he interjects more rhythm with the false stop between what would be two end-sentence word rhymes with the ‘pull the trigger, kill the nigger’ line. It’s crude, but it’s an elegant technique to interject a degree of thematic resonance into what could’ve just moved the song along. The best writers always find a way to make words within end-rhyme structured sentences connect each other in more ways than rhyme; and in this rhyme he ties trigger and with nigger, in rhyme and, at the same time, negro and hero along with all that implies.
Sensitive as he is, making such a comment ‘pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he’s a hero’ with such distance and frequency has left him undoubtedly callous and jaded. This is another facet of the artist, prismatic in contrasting internal conflict. While the streetwalker voice may be desperate, the cynic is what he is because of a life mired in not only a miserable cycle, but a tiring, taxing, emotionally draining cycle, making old men of teenagers. The next verse is a direct exchange between narrative voices:
Give crack to the kids
(Who the hell cares?)
One less hungry mouth on the welfare.
And he continues in the same, ironic voice, this time in the third person:
First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers
Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.
The commonality of black on black crime in the 90’s got to the point where it wasn’t turning any heads.
‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said.
Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.
This moment is transformative; in the presence of death, Tupac becomes a sharp social critic and voice of a generation of disenfranchised, disaffected youths whilst simultaneously broadening awareness and pushing for change in other communities that might not have cared had he not tackled these issues, had he continued to play it safe. When the optimist within him comes to the forefront in the presence of tragedy, he is a grand consoler; and he realizes that although there is some hope for the hopeless, he still hasn’t shed his doubt completely and wont, but in making this song, it is the embodiment of the famous Rosa Parks aphorism:
Be the change you wish to see in the world.
The narrative voices are still conflicting. The interlocutor, the operating consciousness, is expressing solidarity, consolation; perhaps by recognizing these elements within himself, he finally achieves a sort of peace and in making peace with himself sees how peace is possible for all men and women:
I got love for my brother,
but we can never go nowhere
unless we share with each other.
We gotta start making changes,
learn to see each other as a brother
instead of two different strangers.
Although he sees the need for changes, he unconsciously ties the rhyme of changes with strangers. Earlier in the song, he tied negro and hero, trigger and nigger; now he’s tying changes and strangers—after saying earlier he wished he could go back to the way things were when he was a kid–after changing. He understands that the type of change he is suggesting is tantamount to a cultural death, the death of a shared hardship having created, and broken, so many bonds; and the loss of that identity is not something to be mourned because he sees it as poverty, drugs, crime, and death.
Although shedding a cultural identity is long and hard, people are addicted, psychologically, and are dedicated to remain ‘true’ to who they are, even if who they are is destructive to themselves and others in some way or another. As the Tupac narrative voice realizes, he has a cultivated image, which allows him to prevaricate between critic, satirist, and the stereotypical thug introduced in the first verse; his personality and identity is something to which he is dedicated. Even as he rebukes this caricature, the revolutionary he invokes is killed; and this is what it takes—horror of the highest order—to truly bring people together as a truly human family whose patriotism is to the world shared by us all. It’s a harsh truth that while murder can bring out the worst in people—in revenge killings, wars—it can also permeate higher social strata and breathe life into advocacy that is capable of making lasting change.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be, how can the devil take a brother
when he’s close to me?
Even this optimism changes when he realizes that change isn’t a cure-all; it won’t bring back any friends or family, to be able to rewind the tape of history and leave the pain on the cutting room floor, with only childhood left enchanted, PG, not a horror movie. He says as much with the following:
I’d love to go back to when we played as kids,
but things have changed,
and that’s the way it is.
Even though his anaphoric usage of ‘I see no changes,’ is not only a master class in rhetoric, it is each time, by the end of the verse, revised as Tupac realizes that all things change; it’s how we know that time is happening. The idea, however, is that now, although change is inevitable, he has a particular idea of what changes could take place to improve the lives of millions of people.
The bridge between verses has a touch of irony in it which always fascinated me The idea that change, even if it’s for a greater good, which the positivist narrator seems to be endorsing, the change that narrative voice longs for creates strangers. Habits are hard to break, even when they’re unhealthy; smoking, drinking, writing. Although these things are known to be bad for our health, it’s hard to give it up.
That’s just the way it is,
This line is important in establishing a sense of permanence to the situation advocated by the positivist narrator. The second line flatly contradicts it by stating that everything changes;
Things will never be the same.
That’s ‘the way it is’ establishes the idea of a hopeless society on the verge of self-destruction, and ‘things will never be the same’ contrasts combative attitudes towards what change is within the writer, between the different narrative voices, and what is in the realm of possibility.
I see no changes,
all I see is racist faces, ]
misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under.
I believe this misplaced hate is a reference to the pervasiveness, or perceived pervasiveness of black on black crime in the inner cities; this ‘misplaced hate’ is an embarrassment to Tupac, because he believes this kind of behavior reinforces the negative opinions of black culture, and is especially embarrassing to the races he feels that black people are ‘under’ in his view of America’s caste system. The previous narrative points of view are abandoned; excepting the invented dialogue later in the verse, which is a dialogue between what Tupac knows people have to do, and his own idealism towards what the streetwalker character has to do to survive.
The reason behind Tupac’s legacy as the greatest rapper in the history of hip-hop is because of this level of thoughtfulness and poetic sensibility, as well as his gift for rhythm and performance. It was something that hip-hop until then had lacked, or at least was rare. Public enemy was a political force, for sure, and empowering. But with delicate rhyme structures and intermixed commentary, the setup for the last verse is Tupac’s rediscovery of who he is and what he has to do.
I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…
This philosophical epithet is punctuated by two perfect rhymes, takes and make, and one family rhyme, place. It could be said that Tupac could have gotten his message across in ways other than rap, but since he was so good with words it made him available to a larger audience, an audience that replays their music over and over in a way that isn’t possible with books or traditional speeches and is much more accessible. He also recognizes that the good within is motivated by the American promise of opportunity and that is not something which should be color coded.
Take the evil out the people,
Although I can understand the interpretation that there is a defensiveness and maybe even hostility towards white culture—or at least a subset within it—people wasn’t just used here because it rhymed well; all are created equal—a statement which has no asterisk.
…They’ll be acting right,
‘Cause both black and white are smoking crack tonight.
The reason this song could be made is because of how good Tupac could rap and write; he had a wonderful voice to give expression to his thought. In the next bar, his multisyllabic and intricate rhyme structures demonstrate his versatility. It’s easy to forget the weight behind the statement because of how well it flows and how well it works as just music.
And the only time we chill is when we kill each other It takes skill to be real time to heal each other.
It’s easy for the message to be overlooked when it’s packaged in this manner. Tupac obliges in the last verse with typical rap fodder, perhaps as a reward for our patience. He recognizes more and more how truly equal we really are throughout. He doesn’t refuse to acknowledge what he sees as universal, what is present in everybody, and it’s unclear in my reading of the song how he would suggest this be changed, or even if he thought it could be. Throughout the song, he acknowledges behavior he’s not proud of, shown drug trafficking and usage. But true equality in deed does not equal equality in prosecution and this hasn’t ever really been a secret.
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.
In all works of art, literature and poetry, there is a level of ambiguity; sometimes it is intentional, sometimes the artist didn’t really know what the fuck he was talking about, and sometimes it is another instance of the connection-correlation-conclusion method of proof, at least in academic theory.
There are conflicting characters in this work, and it comes down to the simple observation that these conflicting characters are not just conflicting views held by the author, but a microcosm for a culture at war with itself, an internal struggle that manifests in violence and hate.
As for change: the song is full with different ideas on what this is, what it should be, what it’d make better, what it’d make worse; the good parts and the bad. In the first verse, one conflicting narrative voice considers change as the nature of the way things are. Near the end of the second verse, there is a reflective denouncement of this idea coming from another aspect of the same person.
But sometimes things will never change Try to show another way but they stayin in the dope game
But tell me what’s a mother to do
Being real don’t appeal to the brother in you.
You gotta operate the easy way. “I made a G today.”
But you made it in a sleazy way
Sellin’ crack to the kids
I gotta get paid.”
Well hey, that’s the way it is.
When someone of great persuasion and authority says something real but unfortunate, it will always be politically incorrect. The concept of political correctness comes from a type of censorship regarding the way we address certain aspects of culture and aspects of other people’s culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t win you any popularity contests. Tupac was a controversial writer up until the time of his death–at the age of 25!–and the media never looked at his death as anything other than typical black on black violence, something which, earlier in the song, Tupac considered an embarrassment to his culture.
In the monologue between the second and final verse, he offers a plea not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s when he finally spoke at the end of The Great Dictator:
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate or despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
The monologue Tupac gives is in the same spirit as Chaplin’s.
We gotta make a change…
It’s time for us as a people to start making some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live and let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working
so it’s on us to do what we gotta do, to survive.
It’s hard to pin down where Tupac, the person, is leaning idealistically in this song. He had the capacity to look at it from every realistic point of view, and it’s not clear if he’s even happy with having made the song, in his identification with Huey; he certainly saw poverty as penultimate to crime, and desperation to drug use and sell, but it’s not clear whether or not he believes positive change is even possible. In one line, he despairs of change; in another, he longs for the innocence and purity of a youth not yet disillusioned. It’s been almost 20 years since Tupac died. There have been changes; some for good, some for bad. But I think if he was allowed, if there was a Heaven and he made it, to visit Earth for one day, I think the 2008 United States Presidential Election would be the best post-death gift for him. If nothing but high symbolism is there attained, it is an affirmation that a black guy can maintain the highest office in the land; elected and reelected fairly.
Racism still exists but is barely hanging on. Although racism by another name is certainly still all too popular, outright racism isn’t tolerated in the media or in political circles. There are still fights to be fought. The fight for the equal pay for women along with their ability to make their own choices about what is best for their life; the fight for the rights of homosexual men and women to be afforded the full measure of freedom is ongoing; but it will happen. Someday those who now oppose it will wonder how they ever served the spirit of a nation founded upon freedom while at the same time fighting against the right for people to make choices about who they love and when they wish to have a family. Progress has been made; the possibility for the first woman president looks to be just on the horizon in 2016. Again, there are still fights to be fought; but now, more people than ever are willing to fight.
THE DOCTOR IS SICK;
FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters.
Although his legacy is controversial the conversation on Russian literature is incomplete without him; if Dostoevsky is left out of the picture it is incomplete. It’s akin to writing about the beginning of a truly American literature and not mentioning Mark Twain. And, with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov, who had no fondness for the ‘novel of ideas’ approach, and [Joseph] Conrad, who, in his own words, thought, ‘Dostoevsky reaches far back into the first chaotic mouthings [sic] of the Earth.’ That’s one hell of a review, insult or not.
Because his work evokes a madness, a mania, a tempest of animalistic, flailing and pathetic people, the natural assumption is that these are exaggerations intended as a type of satire, parody or social commentary, and I’m sure in many situations that’s exactly what it is—as certainly Prince Mishkin was in The Idiot and the Underground Man was in Notes from the Underground. What I believe is more interesting than the myriad of opposing people and their conflicting philosophies, are all internal, warring aspects of this author’s soul. He was a psychiatrist—his own; writing was his therapy.
“All the novels [written] by Dostoievski [sic] were Crime and Punishment,” wrote Marcel Proust in his collection of essays, Art and Literature.
I’d say that’s about right.
Dostoevsky was a man at war—at war with ideas and philosophy; with destiny and himself. Each of his characters embody a characteristic of their creator either consciously or unconsciously created as such. As he writes, he is revealing more about himself than about his characters. As was said in Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, the work revealed much more about the artist than the subject.
(I paraphrase; it has been many, many years since I last read that book.)
As for madness, I would say that Dostoevsky was a kind of madman, sure. He once robbed the famous Russian author of Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev. He was mad, truly, but not a sporadic writer. He wrote with clarity and patience, often by dictation. Through this dissection, he attempts to excise the within himself to find some sort of peace, as well as the more popular notion that the central thematic element in all of Dostoevsky’s work is the necessity for suffering in attaining spiritual redemption. He is adamant, across his entire body of work, that suffering is a necessary condition for development and salvation.
All of Dostoevsky’s literary characterizations are not only externalizations of inner struggles, they also served to contrast competing political, ideological, and theological attitudes in Russia as it neared the turn of the century. Perhaps as a wink of acknowledgment, Dostoevsky introduced the abstract behind this dual analytic projection in The Double; his meaning there inverse to the doppelganger, though sometimes it gets murky; it is a person of the very opposite of your ideals and beliefs. For example, if you were left handed, your double would be right handed. If you were deeply religious, your double would be a staunch atheist. A double is an intrinsically linked literary antiparticle, such as the positron—an extant example of anti-matter, being the anti-particle of the proton.
In Demons, what Dostoevsky is calling demons are ideas. Specifically, the ideas that possess; the ideas are the demons. They cause war and destruction and can lead to murder, betrayal, and sin. He uses the concept of the double and ideas as demons in his final work, The Brothers Karamazov. Each of his works have an ideological relationship.
Prince Mishkin, the idiot from The Idiot, is a brother in spirit with the ‘hero’ in The Brothers Karamazov, the youngest brother, Alyosha. The double concept is also heavily featured in the novel. This is done not by direct contrast, and never made concrete; it is done by playing characteristics of one character against another in the background, reacting to unspoken provocation to the others’ expressed beliefs within independent, unconnected scenes—connected only in the manner of the anti-particle: Ivan Karamazov’s pairing with father Zossima is a good example. The former is a skeptic of the highest order, atheist, and intellectual. The latter is the leader of a religious order; a faith healer, and a devout Christian. This is a way in which Dostoevsky goes above and beyond the call of duty and gives his personality to the shadow of his characters.
Dostoevsky understood the poor in the same way Tolstoy understood the aristocracy. He was a notorious gambler, and to pay for more money to gamble, he wrote a novel entitled, The Gambler. And, to avoid being counted among the peasantry, the hopelessly poor folk of the country, he wrote a novel called, Poor Folk.
Dostoevsky had a well documented case off epilepsy and Smerdyakov, the bastard child of Fyodor Pavlovich and Stinking Lizavetta in The Brothers Karamazov. In his private letters, which were recounted in Sigmund Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide, it is shown that, just maybe, Dostoevsky had more in common with Smerdyakov than epilepsy; Freud linked this neurosis to the loss of his mother (What else is wrong with people, Freud?) but was later rebuffed when Dostoevsky’s surviving children were diagnosed with epilepsy.
It is not by accident that Raskolnikov (the anti-hero from Crime and Punishment) has the same possessive demons that characterized the main character in Demons, Stepan Trofimovich, who could also be said to have been possessed by an idea. In this case, the Double is becoming more of a doppelganger than an inversion, but the double is meant to define by contrast, or tie together by resemblance in expression. Both Raskolnikov and Trofimovich are lead to ruin by their possession, by their possessors, these demons.
In the culmination of his life’s work, The Brothers Karamazov, all of his work leading up to it features in some way—through demons and doubles
You have the intellectual; Ivan Karamazov is a brother in spirit to the Underground Man from Notes from the Underground, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, Stepan from Demons; all of these characters are linked together, each one third of the trinity Dostoevsky is constructing within the framework of the sons of Fyodor Karamazov. In giving the wastrel, buffoonish patriarch Fyodor Karamazov his own Christian name, he at least identifies the trio—the trio in harmony. But what of the sickness that creeps in and disturbs this trinity?
The Russian Orthodox Church believes that the mind, the body, and soul are elements within the Godhead. The mind:
Ivan Karamazov, Raskolnikov, the underground man, Stepan; the body: Dmitri Karamazov, Alexie from the Gambler, Grushenka, Marmeladov; the soul; Prince Mishkin, Alyosha, Grigory the housekeeper, adoptive father of Dmitri.
What do all Dostoevsky characters have in common? They all in some fashion gamble with everything they have on the table. More often than not, they lose. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is off to prison for a crime he did not commit; Ivan is “on death’s door,” and Alyosha, seems the only brother with a full life ahead of him.
Through these characters the trinity remains in balance until a poison, something toxic weeds its way into it, disturbing this holy order, making it unnatural: Smerdyakov, the bastard child, the reeking one, unacknowledged, the irrational strain just outside—a new breed of degenerate cropping up in Russian society, the real murderer of his father Fyodor Karamazov. And what was Smerdyakov? Another in a long line of possessed whose ideas lead them to ruin—and in the end he hangs himself; all real problems seem to be self-terminating.
At the end of his life, at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, we have the idiot, the simpleton, the soul, giving the famous speech at the stone, exalting the virtues of simplicity, tenderness, and kindness. Through this Dostoevsky withstands the harshest indictment ever created against the orthodoxy (which he himself delivered through Ivan Karamazov in Rebellion, and The Grand Inquisitor, respectively) and found a kind of peace.
What Dostoevsky had inside him was purged through this literary exorcism. With Smerdyakov hanging in Grigor’s basement, the trinity in balance, Dostoevsky was set free. After a life of such passion and intensity I hope that at least in the days before his death he managed to get a good night’s sleep with the knowledge that he had contributed more to the literary culture of the world than he (or anyone, for that matter) ever thought he could.
SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Daniel Paul Schreber’s unique autobiography Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is a notable exception.
Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he later did in his best play, King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin, and the higher he climbs, the closer his story mirrors the myth of Icarus.
At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by the witches to kill to rise in power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intended to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires he had. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated even more morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.
Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his passionate soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.
MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he whom they hail as King.
MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre, a theme going back to the time of the first recorded productions of the plays staged by the cult of Dionysus.
“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”
Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts projected, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.
MacBeth says, “That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”
In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is considered too evil to be seen.
The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan. This shows how he did this all to himself well aware of the risks and is unable to even enjoy his kingship because of the conflict inside him. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from good, through temptation, into a complete servant to his more evil instincts and ambitions.
Methought I heard a voice cry
“Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,”
the innocent sleep,
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,
The death of each day’s life,
sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds,
great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn.
Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.
In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.” Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.
“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.
Tragedy is mainly two types, Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind his downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the fall of the protagonist, the tragic hero. Romeo and Juliet is related to the Greek tragedy with the characters having many fatal flaws such as rivalry and youth as well as cultural flaws.
Romeo and Juliet was written around 1595 among many other tragedies. Romeo and Juliet is a broad-stroke tragedy. In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected apropos, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.
Tragedy was used by Shakespeare to break down and end the rivalry and feud between the two families; Capulets and Montagues and also to bring an end to the play. Many tragedies have been presented in the play including Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt and the death of Romeo, Juliet and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy. Tragedies could have been causes for the following reasons; authority, patriarchy, codes of honor, rivalry, masculinity, rebellion, ambition and fate.
From the very beginning of the play, fate was constantly referred to by Shakespeare, starting with the prologue, “A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.” This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.
Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives—as it was crossed through the stars. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job to convince the audience to believe that what has happened in the play was down to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.
The fated death of Romeo and Juliet was revealed from the opening of the play. To say they’re going to die is not even a spoiler. Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, destiny you have to believe in destiny; Romeo and Juliet was tame for Elizabethan play-goers. By comparison, Henry VII is Kill Bill in tights.
Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”
Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control; “…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”
By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end.
The use of fate by Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.
Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry between the two families. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet only serves to indicate his naiveté. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.
The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic over and over.
Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families and the rivalry between them by marring one another. The play has presented several examples of adolescent rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris which makes her seem guilty as she live in patriarchy society. Juliet then makes it even worse for herself by going against her father and not marrying Paris. Both rebel against their parents through their continued association. Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying, “…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”
Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet like no one else, but in Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, he pushes himself higher and higher by bringing the Hamlet drama closer and closer to the personal, neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is probably the best evidence for this, as his own son, Hamnet, had died, sparking Shakespeare’s renewed interest in destructing the relationship between fathers and sons.
After his son was carried away by the plague, we have Hamlet, looking in a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued into his philosophy of the absurd, see The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; life is penultimate to a type of eternity and Shakespeare says as much, taking the reader through a tempest of sound and fury, signifying not only fathers and their loss, and the loss of a father, but suicide, lethargy—the lethargy that puts gravity to his quill.
To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day And all our yesterdays are lighted fools; Out! Out brief candle!
Life is but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets
his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.
It is a tale told by an idiot— Full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.
The people upon whom Shakespeare’s penetrating eye falls are, in one form or another, saddened by personal loss and trying to deal with it in different ways. It is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of life, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, a passing storm, false pretenses, and masks.
A good example of this is how King Lear mistreats his only honest daughter at the same giving lavish to the sycophantic ass-kissing of his other daughters.
It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet in his more reflective, pensive moods; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of poets in England, to a grieving father; he had money and fame, and I think the character of MacBeth was both his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde moment all truly reflective people encounter at some point in their life.
At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd were his contemporaries and they did well.
When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see yourself before that mirror thinking, always thinking, of what you have to lose, what you have lost, and what you know will be lost soon. If there be providence must this be the greatest lack of mercy—the denial, the voices of those we’ve buried; it is this great mystery from whence springs the theological edifices of man: the dead stay silent, unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals and as a species, struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give us a hint at what that definition could be.
THE FICTIONAL YOU
MARY SUE NOVELS ARE MUCH MALIGNED IN
literary circles and among the intelligentsia. It is also the first idea a non-writer has for a story. Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without doubt.
As an unknown writer, I understand how it feels to need validation. And because of this, to advertise ourselves, we create a fictionalized, externalized self through which we attempt to show our worth. The trope is best described as a semibiographical, thinly veiled origins story for the author. The narration is the proxy through which we attempt to show our merit as a writer and as a person.
This isn’t limited to first-timers, though it is more common for a first time writer to write a Mary Sue than it is for an established author (ask me how I know.) For example, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is a good Mary Sue, but the author, the titular David Copperfield, is not the same writer as Charles Dickens. If anything, I think Uriah Heep reveals more about the author than the author’s author.
This technique can work if the person attempting the Mary Sue is skilled and / or witty; but if the intention is to make the most sock-sniffing faux pas of an autohagiography, why then should it be fiction? If your life is interesting enough, no embellishment should be necessary. If you don’t deserve a genuine biography, making a slightly fictionalized account of yourself where you, by proxy, become what you wish to be instead of what you are, you are attempting an exercise akin to a chef trying to fake the quality of a meal. William S. Burroughs said it best in The Western Lands:
“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”
The more obvious the intent to blur the recognition of a by-proxy facsimile makes more embarrassing the entire situation. And, considering you’ve admitted to yourself no achievement worth an actual autobiography, choosing to enhance your good characteristics and be a cool guy by proxy, to be cared for by proxy, makes this a sad, sad state of affairs. If you want a biography, do something to change the world. Invent a working system of government—you’ll get a Mary Sue for you that.
Growing up I was a big fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. I even got a tourist map of London (though the names were changed) to try to follow Holmes and Watson around in their adventures. When I first started thinking about it as an adult, I started to think that, since Watson was a disabled war vet, he created Holmes to somehow live an exciting life as an important, intelligent and useful man. Or perhaps he created Holmes as an imaginary friend, to escape the monotony of a slow mind and unfulfilled life. There is evidence to support this.
First, within the framework of the story, there is a surprising lack Holmes in newspapers despite his brilliant career—as for his reluctance for validation, it does not make sense for the character as described by his biographer The Sherlock Holmes as described by Watson had few weaknesses; yet, time after time. he is prone to vanity and showmanship. A man so moved by vanity would naturally take credit for his deeds. Yet, when not on the scene or talking to witnesses, Sherlock dislodges himself from the scene entirely, like a moth roused from sleep by the hint of a greater fire. Watson dramatized the stories by making Holmes artist and magician; in Hounds of the Baskerville, Sherlock was absent for most of the novel. As events begin to move along at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is found camping on the moors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a good author of fiction, but he is much greater at bringing together lots of disparate strings together in each dazzling denouement.
In between these cases, Holmes is described as abstracted, detached. aloof. The sole motivation seems to be to perform these pieces of drama at the behest of his friend, Watson. At the end of The Sign of Four, the denouement is usurped by the wonderful story of the main antagonist, the one-legged Andaman islander Johnathon Small. The ending is brief but telling:
“The division seems rather fair,” says Watson. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets
the credit, pray what remains for you?”
“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there is cocaine.” And he stretched his long white hand up for it.
Watson was the narrator in all but a few stories (I can think of two in which Holmes narrates himself, The Blanched Soldier and The Lions Mane (both from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; there are two that come to mind written in the third-person omnipotent perspective, The Dying Detective (in the collection published as His Last Bow) and The Mazarin Stone (also from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; Watson narrates most stories exclusively in his first-person present indicative perspective.
In the second half of A Study in Scarlet, the first book to feature the world famous detective, the story is told in a third person to give the murderer, Jefferson Hope, a back-story. The same thing takes place in the second half of Valley of Fear, when the tale of the man (whose supposed murder kicks the story into motion) takes place in Utah.
Watson, in Valley of Fear, describes Scotland Yard’s MacDonald as a protégé to Holmes thusly: ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, while genius instantly recognizes talent.’
Consider who is more likely to exist: a man capable of riddling out your job by the calluses on your hands, where you live by the unique stains on your boots, and where you sat in a carriage because of the direction of the splash, or a retired military man playing his own little game of literary cops and robbers, imagining himself as Sherlock Holmes, a man of genius, wit, and skill. Watson’s injury isn’t consistent from the first story to the second: in the first, he says:
“I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”
In the first chapter of The Sign of Four, Holmes manages to upset his dull companion by his accuracy in regards to the character of Watson’s brother. In that scene, it becomes a leg wound that, ‘aches with the change of weather.’
Watson’s greatness and his weakness was projected onto Holmes. After his death in The Final Problem, published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he is assumed to have died in combat with Moriarty, having fallen into the Reichenbauch Falls. However, in The Adventure of the Empty House, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells of his comings and goings in Sherlock’s absence, but interestingly omitted from Watson’s account of life without his famous friend is his wife Mary, whom he met in The Sign of Four. And how does he find Sherlock Holmes again? Holmes, disguised as an old man, bumps into Watson, carrying a pile of books. And from that disguise, Sherlock Holmes reappears.
To imbue your fiction with aspects of your life in a relatable way is different in a very important way than the proper Mary Sue. To have a character with your mother’s manners or your father’s name is natural. The reason the Mary Sue is so frowned upon is because it negates the problem of imagination at the same time fictionalizing. The best thing about writing fiction is the fantasy. When you understand what makes the best art so great, it has a dual and positive effect: you have the motivation to acquire the skill to create, and the sensibility and identification with the material to know what you’ve created
THE ART OF OPPRESSION
AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED
our lives and culture, it can be used more nefariously—and it is, and has been for thousands of years, used as a means to a much, much more nefarious end; as the best literature and information can liberate, it is possible to enslave. I know I touched on this in the chapter on the eukaryotic idea, but I’d like to expand upon that through and analysis of George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul—as the most noble of literature and ideas can—it enslaves. When you control the information, you control those who receive it.
‘Big Brother is watching you,’ a classic line from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching you’ appeals. Big Brother is a collective, a hivemind of herding principles structured by those in charge of Oceania designed to keep the fear palpable; the more afraid someone is, the more likely they are to comply with what is terrifying them.
Although Ray Bradbury has denied Farenheit 451 is about censorship, it certainly illustrates the horror behind the destruction and suppression of ideas and draws attention to how the forces behind book burnings are usually those in charge of a control system. It is interesting, also, to consider the inversion of allegory involved; the allegory is the main narrative, and the main narrative is allegory for the idea.
John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.
In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America. To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.
Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.
What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution.
‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’
Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.
Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.
The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.
AN HOMAGE TO ORWELL
BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICL ANALYSIS
of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.
Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.
The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.
His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.
Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.
There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.
Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.
Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.
Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.
In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’
It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’
Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’
On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’
From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.
At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’
Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.
Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.
At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’
Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.
Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.
Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.
The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’
He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.
A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’
In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.
Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’
As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’
Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’
This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’
And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.
It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.
By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.
Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’
The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’
By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.
As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’
Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.
The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.
David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.
Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.
In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.
Freedom of speech
The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.
It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.
Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.
An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.
For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.
Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.
THE ART OF LIBERATION
IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.
The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’
The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’
By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.
‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’
It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.
Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’
Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”
After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’
Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.
The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’
These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:
This too shall pass.
The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.
The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.
Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”
With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.
‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’
Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.
In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’
This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.
In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’
Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.
‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’
This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.
In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle.
OUR BAROQUE INHERITANCE
THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature,, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn has decided to wear the clothes of a king.
The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea: barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped different, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.
What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as do modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.
Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by European as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the art—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite Europe in a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.
Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer are of shade and shadow) and realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.
In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions. This volume includes a chronological table to guide the reader through one of the most dramatic periods of history, brief biographies of the artists, a bibliography; and an index. Together these resources make this exceptionally well researched volume an essential introduction to one of the most fascinating periods in art history.
Baroque actually expressed new values. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.
The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.
The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.
The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.
Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.
In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers are Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo.
Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an area in which many noted figures emerged from different fields. Artists, such as the aforementioned Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque. Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.
Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all of which being uniquely new.
When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and sometimes affectations intensity. The music of this time period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and express in their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast: of volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.
And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melody line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.
The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.
Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the advancement of the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.
It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.
By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture and volume.
Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.
As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.
The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.
French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.
Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.
Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.
The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.
These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.
This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.
Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.
Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.
Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.
EVERYTHING IN A NAME
A ROSE BY ANOTHER NAME IS A POPULAR PHRASE
that originated in Shakespeare’s light-hearted romantic comedy, Romeo and Juliet; for reasons we will discuss, it has entered the lexicon. The popular interpretation is that an object’s name doesn’t change an object’s nature. Of course a rose’s smell would not change if it was called a rope. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The essence of a rose should not change if the language used to describe it was changed. The beauty and aroma is entirely independent and separate from its designation. This assumption, this assumption that a name does not carry with it any inherent value which can be added or subtracted based purely on what it’s called or how it’s foreshadowed, is wrong as wrong can be.
Science has disproven this lovely quote in many ways. For example, studies have shown that not only is a medication more therapeutic and effective if we know it is the more expensive brand-name and not the generic, but the placebo effect works even when we know we are taking a placebo. How is this true? It works this way because we know the placebo effect is real and therefore expect a placebo to work when we take it and because of this predisposition it more often does work this way.
If a rose was called a rope the smell would surely change. One letter marks the difference between a Cézanne painting and the cover of an Agatha Christie novel. One sells for millions of dollars, and the other for $0.99.
The gravitas and respectability of these quotes and works of art are very much dependent upon the name attached. A quote attributed to a famous intellectual will naturally have more authority than the same quote might have coming from a virtual unknown. Think of the mileage of Oscar Wilde’s famed quips and witticisms; as well as Shakespeare and Churchill and all of those great speakers and writers whose work we know because of these stand-out axioms, witticisms, zingers, adages—whatever you want to call it, the name, in this case, really doesn’t matter. It affords the laziest of ambitious academics the luxury of at least sensing the aroma of a work of art, if nothing more than looking at a rose through a glass chandelier.
In the marketplace of ideas, as it is in the world of marketing and free-market capitalism, endorsement and star power is important. Brand awareness is crucial. If someone without a much admired and extensive oeuvre, had said, for example, ‘All happy families are the same; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,’ as Tolstoy did, the quote that opens one of the finest novels of all time, Anna Karenina, it would be witty, maybe even passed around in a circle of friends. But would it infiltrate the world and other cultures and linger for hundreds of years if David Brent shad [Ricky Gervais] aid it on The Office? As much as I would like to think so, I doubt it.
Tolstoy’s pedigree and critical success afforded him the ability to be taken serious as a thinker which predisposes one to the opinion of what constitutes as Tolstoy’s genius. The name in this instance is just as important as the quote; because without the name, the quote doesn’t have the tenacity to survive in the wild. The attribution is what designates credibility and the endorsement is important. If you switch it around and attribute the quote to, let’s say, the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, the same poetry and piquant wit would mutate and take on sinister dimensions. In his day, Tolstoy was considered to be the foremost of moral thinkers; in his essays, Marcel Proust compared him to Thomas Aquinas because of his gentle wisdom. That in itself is a triple layered endorsement that hinges upon names: Marcel Proust’s credibility as a thinker has afforded him the attention and respect for thought that he and Thomas Aquinas deserve, furthering the importance of names in respect to the consideration of ideas. For every field there is a star.
Physics has Einstein; biology has Darwin; genetics has Mendelev; astronomy has Carl Sagan; Christian theology has C.S. Lewis; philosophy has Descartes and Nietzsche; politics has Napoleon, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Britain’s killer Queen Elizabeth; popular science has Stephen J. Gould, author of Wonderful Life and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and the superior, but less popular, The Extended Phenotype, and science itself has Bill Nye and a relative newcomer, who deserves his increasing popularity, Neil deGrasse Tyson. As a name goes, it imbues ideas with a quality that without the name would lack.
When it comes to books and poems, the admiration and fandom of the writer adds a layer of appreciation that is absent from a book or story by a virtual unknown. The name brings to mind a known personality, a known and respected author, and it’s easier to give them an assumed quality. An author who is unknown to you is understandably treated with more skepticism and thus must do more to earlier in the story than established great whose prior qualities afford them such patience and courtesy. Consider how seriously this quote would be taken if attributed to a much adored Russian poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, and compare the reception if the quote was attributed to an annoying pop star, or Televangelist; From Pushkin, it is a statement on the importance and value of the imagination: ‘The illusion which exalts [us] is dearer to than ten thousand truths.’
Consider the plot of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Speaking of which…
THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV
There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.
When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’
I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?
In a course I attended at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.
Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla. This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.
In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.
The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.
Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.
A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself. Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.
The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.
For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.
For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:
The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.
Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …
All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.
I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.
On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.
The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.
I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.
Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.
In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.
This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.
Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.
It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft we call art.
WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment. I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.
I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.
In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.
The more I read the more enamored I was I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.
When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.
Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.
I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.
Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience. In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.
The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the new heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.
Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned out of thin-air what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act; a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of a well-crafted mask fall away like autumn leaves.
Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable, fallible memory and his strangely acute sense of time as it dripped over his asthmatic shoulders as he lay in his shabby Parisian flat, paralyzed by apprehension and anxiety.
His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within The Search, his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture ripe for satire.
In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most existential of Proust’s probing into the human soul.
The difference, I discovered, between my former favorite author Dostoevsky and my current favorite Proust was in their handling of naturalism. Dostoevsky, I realized, is more of a young man’s passion: a peasant’s soap opera, despite its psychological pastiche, is lacking in the most important aspect of realism: the unimportant.
In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers in discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly heard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel as a character have such depth. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another of the conscious, another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.
THE IMMORTALITY OF MEANING
PHENOTYPIC CHARACTERISTICS OF ANIMALS ARE determined by genes lined along chromosomal loci, slots along the chromosome, where genes compete with alternate genes called alleles. All gene combinations are taken from an ancestral pool which allows for innumerable possibilities in the assemblage of genetic traits. The genepool is a good parallel for the dreampool as both allow diversification in nature and (eukaryotic) ideas, respectfully; and, conversely, the requisite standards found in the structure of language, of alphabets and declension, punctuation, syntax, context and form.
As each animal can be traced to the beginning of life, ideas are built on past ideas and use other ideas as a foundation for new ideas. Identity and individuality are so define by the content of the dreampool, as inherited ideas pass from one person to another, generation after generation, from one to the next forever until it is replaced by that which evolves from it and extinction when it no longer applies to the world in which it lives. As life ideas have ancestors; satire was born in the tradition of Dionysian theatre, where comedy in art began. Satire is from the Greek word satyr; this may be the memetic ancestor from which would descend Napoleon, Orwell’s pig. Those cuneiform tablets are the ancestors of what you now hold, the bound book;–itself a descendent from other methods of story distribution which predates written history.
As eukaryotic ideas contain specific information, as do most books of this variety, for viability and function there is a replacement of new, better thought out ideas; another mimicry of character based alphabets that allow for different phoneme groupings necessary to use predefined terms in the arrangement of new ideas. New ideas, as new hatchlings in a pond, enter into a dangerous and predated world; this is a world of strict competition in the marketplace of ideas, the dreampool; each idea born is another tadpole looking for a way to crawl from the sea like we and on land be much more than what they were; meaningless and non-viable like that tadpole, like a caterpillar chrysalis into pupa, into beauty.
Similarly, our schools put together our dreampool chromosomes; our interlocutor is influenced by contrasting opinions and put to a unique, internal check, a test to which all ideas new ideas are unconsciously put. For a Buddhist aspirant, the idea that wealth is worth the effort to strive under a hot sun daily is somehow errant because of transience, the temporary joy of earthly riches which do not justify the labored suffering for a temporary anodyne, a Band-Aid attempting to cover the wounds caused by need and desire.
To a Buddhist aspirant, in the tradition of that Great Monkey King, the jewels do not denote nobility; compassion and moderation does. To the Romanov dynasty, to Queen Victoria—the Jewel, the crown diamond, is worth more than the gross domestic product of many countries. By what machination do we divide the worthy and the worthless? Human beings do what evolution prepared us to do: choose what makes us feel safe, for what makes us feel safe is a genetic response to surviving long enough to pass on our own genetic inheritance, imperfectly translated by a tadpole into a less imperfect frog.
A microcosm of speciation is variation among clade [and subclades]; a macrocosmic evolutionary metamorphosis becomes itself an itinerate species to be tested. Ideas that survive the criticism of individual evaluating interlocutors become predators, predators that seek and destroy other ideas. The idea of evolution has remained alive despite one-hundred fifty years of varied attacks by individuals and institutions having inherited different memetic traits; some of these contain unverifiable yet untouchable strains of dubious wisdom verifiable by instinct and the idea itself. The holder of an accepted idea concentrates on what gives the idea its validity because of what it means, ensuring its memetic perpetuation. This is known as confirmation bias; defined as,
In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirm one’s own preconceptions,
Ideas found to be un-true by oneself can be just as passionately thought true by another. What accounts for this discrepancy in universal truth without interpretation, meaning without equivocation, and unconditional waivers of possible contradictions? The connection-correlation-conclusion system, what I call The Three-C Truth.
Human beings have twenty-six chromosomes, inherited from an ancestral genepool, to genes responsible for blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair; the phenotypes of an animal’s genotype which provide the architectural plans for our body. It is obvious in the analogy to consider that for an idea to occupy a position considered truth that one idea, for belief, competes with the alternative idea for disbelief. This competition takes place in the building, not of phenotypic traits, but the building of the thinking individual.
How much of what we choose or select as truth can be traced to the collective culture from which it originated without stuttering or translation, static or contention? The dreampool is an abstraction, the meta-construct of the sum total of a culture’s accepted and rejected wisdom accessible at any time through mental exercise and interlocutor evaluation in regards to what is meaning, what is true, what is objective, what is true for everyone—is there such a thing? Consider: there is one truth beyond dispute; not all truth is absolute. Ideas are open to interpretation; meaning does well to engender debate about what the actual debate is about.
In most cultures, one of the first books one encounters is the A to Zed, a Bible and a dictionary. The childcare center which I attended had three books which were intended to impart to the average person, young or old, not only what, in my culture, was considered the authority on morality, but a book that defines what the other book about morality—which must be defined by a book not using the term, outside of itself—means with its sentences, what sentences mean and how the true meaning should be evaluated.
As I discussed in an earlier essay on allegory, as I have in the essay preceding this one, what is said is not only gifted an assumed quality based on attaché; it can have a second layer of clothing to cover naked expression. By what standard do we hold information endorsed by others to be true? How much is worth worth? If a book is ‘worth’ something, it is published. The degree of worth determines something more important than the number of units sold: it determines what a person believes they’re worth.
Worth has been the strongest motivating factor behind everything I do: my studies and education; my novels and my essays, and all of my artistic aspiration. Even now, in this very essay, the worth is the biggest consideration because that is what ultimately determines publication. This ambition has changed through time and, with a chip on one shoulder and a devil on the other, it remains. The devil hasn’t quit, but he has gotten quieter.
A book is how we hide a piece of our soul away and survive our death. In my favorite novel, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I think the same desire burns within the character of Marcel (though the book is not autobiographical, it is written by the fictional Marcel at the end) there is this desire to find worth and meaning. Marcel (the character) realizes this as the highest value of the novel—the immortality of meaning, of encapsulating an entire life within one work of art, hiding part of ourselves inside it that it may never be destroyed, that it may live forever.
Before talking about hiding one’s soul in an object, I will first address the elephant in the room.
J.K. Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series, introduced a magical object in the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, called a horcrux; this object allows a practitioner of black-magic to split their soul and hide part of it within an object. This allows them to survive a fatal attack, as the part that is hidden lives on. In the series it is used by the primary antagonist as an attempt to become immortal.
The first horcrux made by Voldemort (a French portmanteau intended to mean flight from death) was a ring; the second one is what made me realize not only what Proust’s real achievement was, but also what a book really is: the second horcrux was a diary. The written word is a horcrux, a horcrux which doesn’t require the splitting of one’s soul, that is to commit murder murder to create, as it did in the work of J.K. Rowling. All artists are magicians and each diary and book, each symphony and painting, all are a means by which we put a part of our soul into an object, objects with survive us. We survive our deaths through this process, waiting to come alive each time a book is opened.
Although Harry Potter and In Search of Lost Time are miles away in style, content, and story, there is a link between the character Marcel and Voldemort; they’re both afraid of death and go to extremes to prevent it. To these characters, Time is something to be defeated, the greatest of all mass murderers. Although their motives for trying to escape death couldn’t be more different, Time is the antagonist. Voldemort loses his life in search of immortality; the reason for its pursuit, for Voldemort, was a means to an end and the end was more power. Proust’s character Marcel has very different motivations.
In the last book of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, or, alternatively, The Past Recaptured, Marcel Proust sees Combray rearrange itself and rise into the sky above him. Throughout the series, which may be the first four-dimensional books ever written, Time is the antagonist. It takes away everything he loved; his mother and his father, the fictional town of Combray and the love of his life, Albertine. His mother, his father, the hawthorns he loved so much; but they come back to him, such as the Madeline cake in tea. In the end, he begins the book we’ve finished and, in that moment, Death and Time are defeated; he has survived death through hiding his soul away in a book. And if you want to listen, if you are inclined, open a volume of In Search of Lost Time, and Marcel Proust will speak to you. Across time and space, he’ll speak to you.
The immortal mother theory, the theory that all animals from every species go back to one mother, is compatible with the concept of the immortality of meaning. Different letters can be arranged to produce different expressions in phylum and language. But what is meaning? Does it exist independently of human beings? The answer to the prior question must be the answer to the following: is there emotion elsewhere, in other species? Yes. The answer is yes. Elephants mourn the dead. Alpacas can die from loneliness. Meaning is something that is to be applied after consideration of action, thought, and behavior
Meaning is immortal and requires only sentient beings, who can evaluate, of course, to be able to extract meaning from what they think. The meaning behind the great works of literature, unlike the works themselves, is in the air, intangible, capable only of being recognized, plucked from the ether to imbue our work with light and worth.
Before the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is possible that we didn’t write stories. Or at least stories in that manner. Because humans had not yet settled into a sedentary lifestyle. Without settling down and ending the hunter gatherer period in our history, the ability for a story with characters and a familiar history would be impossible. Without culture, a culture to reflect and understand the mythos of a gathered people, there is no avenue for story fiction. This [Gilgamesh] and books like it, such as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which Shakespeare himself would take historical accounts for his dramas.) Stories become possible when a people congregate and share a common history, a reference point or mythology. Without this a story, though understandable by literate people, will contain alien references and characters whose import is not known.
It is also possible that writings before the Neocene were lost during the last ice-age, which modern science believes to have ended around ten thousand years ago. Studying the ancient works of literature, such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and many other religious texts popular in the Western world. And it is true that, from these stories, the identity of the reader is forever shaped and changed either by acceptance or rejection.
Of course leading this new lifestyle allowed for humans to do more than survive. For the first time it allowed us to live; it allowed us to live in a manner not too far removed from the way we live today. And when humans started coming together, the long history of oral lit eventually became the written word, the most ancient of which is to be found on clay tablets in ancient cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was the first language system to be developed and was used by all the major empires of the era. This includes Egypt, Hattusha (of what is modern day Turkey, not the Biblica Hittites,) Syria, and Babylon. It was the diplomatic language of the period. And on these clay tablets we find the first work of fiction known to exist.
Outside of a textbook a story doesn’t need to inform or educate although they often do. From the epic of Gilgamesh we get a partial understanding of the people who lived in the area where it originated, on the land between the Tigris and Euphrates between the second and third millenniums BCE. We know the king Gilgamesh was a celebrated ruler; we know the culture was a literate one of many gods, conscious of their cultivation of the nature world. These are things we can fix historically and definitively establish. Yet in the case of Gilgamesh we are made to understand the things we cannot know, things of which we’ll never more than partially glance, and get a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it has always meant. The culture as defined by this epic reflected our will and need to understand, and was painfully conscious of what we could not, and, in its way, is an attempt to reconcile our morality.
The reason Gilgamesh remains popular among scholars is because we learn about human history; we look to the past and through that prism see our daily lives in a different, richer life– and we look to it to understand life as it was all those centuries ago. The search for the meaning of life has always began with the opening of a book, and a historical perspective from different angles offers us a larger range of possibilities and, being subjective in our sight, make the associations ourselves, as one who looks upon a cloud formation and finds the shape not in the clouds, but in themselves. ‘Methinks it looks like a weasel,’ as it’s put in Hamlet is a subtle nod about the nature of how we understand and believe and its relationship to our inner universe. Lao Tzu, one of the trinity of great Chinese philosophers, the others being Chuang Tzu and Confucius, wrote in the Tao te Ching:, in regards to ‘the line:’ The five colors will make blind a man.” This could be said in regards to the man who, though studious, being so omnivorous in his selection of books and philosophy, knows so much that something is lost.
This also suggests that definitions (the way that can be named is not the constant way) impart a fixed idea that there are only those fixed colors, only those fixed philosophies; this obscures the infinite continuity of shades between and opposite. To know with division distracts
from the subtlety of merging; the static gaps as defined by omission take away from the eternity of f. Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to meaning is impaired by fixed perspective based on the absence of considering gradation in respect to what it means to be human, to be separate from the animal kingdom. There is an infinite continuity of meaning and the history of literature has done well to, through writing and analysis, pull meaning because of our natural instincts and pattern recognition.
A Rorschach test may very well be meaningless in objective terms, but the way in which it is subjectively interpreted testifie to the notion that what we bring to the table of understanding largely influences the understanding we take away. Reading is a kind of re-telling – not to learn what is known, but to know what isn’t; this is the endless search all readers engage in each time they pick up another book. It is a search for what can’t be known and we’re right in the middle of it, to see for ourselves, the meaning of a story. First we need to account for the events, having first established whether it is fact or fiction, so we may be able to articulate the question raised by a character’s actions and reactions as well as the implications and consequences. We need to consider how a story is put together as well: how it uses the conventions of language, events with beginnings and endings, description, description of character, and the way in which the story reawakens our sensitivity to the real world.
The real world is a world without a plot, without conventions, unnameable world—in the chaotic world of cause and consequences, the madness and blurry character and indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean the most to us bring us back to our unintelligible yet immeasurably meaningful lives. The reason storytelling became so popular in human society is largely due to the satiation of our natural curiosity with the world and our suspicion and questioning consideration of how others live and feel.
The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with a prologue–a common convention that serves as a frame – and recounts the story of Gilgamesh’s life. An anonymous narrator writes, ‘I will proclaim the deeds of Gilgamesh to the world. This narrative technique is not only a way to frame a narrative; it is a way for the narrator to introduce himself and welcome us to the endless present of telling the story. All is prologue when the third person omniscient reflective is used. All is past. The story continues by explaining itself; having returned from his journey, taking respite from his labors, Gilgamesh inscribes the story about to be told on a clay tablet. This suggests that what we’re reading is a transcription that repeats an oral telling that repeats a written tale. By using the frame the narrator intends to convince us of the story’s authenticity. By calling attention to the act of telling the narrator reminds us that the truth of the story might lie in the fact of its being a story – the undeniable fact of its own narration. The frame intends to blur the distinction between the world of the story, the world of Gilgamesh, and our own. One may not, as of yet, travel into the future: but a type of time travel is taking place as this unknown narrator begins his story. The long gone bricks rise again and reassemble and from a thousand years ago the voice begins the tale:
“Look at it now, today and still, a threshold ancient; touch it; climb the wall of Uruk and walk upon it. Regard the foundation terrace and masonry. Is it not a color of burnt brick? Is it not good? The seven sages laid these foundations.”
The narrator literally builds the story brick by brick and in our minds the walls of Uruk, a city having faded into dust, rises in its prime, in its glory in our minds; as Baghdad in a bottle-the Arabian Nights-Uruk becomes immortal, a familiar setting for philologists and cultural anthropologists and linguists, living forever as the word. This is a kind of magic, as all good books are, creating fantastical situations in exotic locales with danger and excitement and the bravado of a God-king at the dawn of human history. Two-thirds God, and this is key to all that follows, Gilgamesh is a classical hero – more beautiful and courageous and more terrifying than us all and yet his desires, attributes, his accomplishments epitomize our own. And yet he is mortal; he must watch others die and someday die himself. How much more can a God-king rage against death than the rest of us, purely mortal? Reading Gilgamesh allows us to celebrate being human, being mortal, having brief lives.
The hero’s failed attempt at finding immortality, ironically, as it is to be forever alive in the dreampool of readers the world over, has thereby attained what he died without finding. How much then should a god-king rage against mortality than we merely mortals? It is in impermanence that importance is most beautifully assigned. What joy would there be in a magnificent meal if no effort was require to attain it and it never ended? The reconciliation of past and present is always present in the work;
Gilgamesh is a tyrant without restraint. He has no compassion for the people of Uruk, a king but not a shepherd. He kills his subject’s sons and rapes their daughters. Hearing the people’s lament, the gods create Enkidu; he is to be a match for
Gilgamesh, a second ‘self.’
“Let them fight and leave Uruk at peace.”
The plan works in many ways. First Gilgamesh is prevented from entering to home of a bride and bridegroom. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight at first yet become friends. Second, they journey into the forest to face the terrible Humbaba. There they encourage each other to face death without fear, triumphantly.
“All living creatures born of flesh shall at last in the last boat of the west.. When it
“All living creatures born of flesh shall sit at last in the boat of the west. When it sinks the boat of Magilum sinks they are gone; but we shall advance and fix our eyes on this monster.” It must be noted, to ancient cultures the West, or Western Lands, was equal to death, where one went when one died. And although eternal life is not to be found, he understands the power of story, the immortality of character, legacy, and meaning. “I will go to the country where the cedar is felled,” he tells Enkidu. “I will put my name in the place where the name of famous men are written.” Then Gilgamesh turns away from selfishness and small desires and aspires to loftier goals, goals to benefit Uruk.
His duty to Uruk can be seen from the prologue; the very first sentence testifies to the immortality of his name. The immortality of a name is less the ability to live forever than the inability to die. Gilgamesh learns the meaning of love and compassion, the meaning of loss, of growing older, and eventually accepts mortality. In following Gilgamesh, we are asked to not only take part in his adventures, but in his emotional growth and broader understanding of the world and his place in it, and through that better understand our own.
The Shadow Gallery
Earlier in this book I considered a book to be a haunted house. And in a sense, I still think it to be, but my perspective has changed; the perspective is change. These ghosts aren’t here to scare us; they’re here to tell us their stories, their struggles, their ideas; they’re here, living through the words, telling us they lived, telling us who they are, telling us that they lived and that their lives had value and, reassuringly, so did ours. They ask only for our time, these characters, for our sympathetic understanding.
The reason writer’s write is the same reason mockingbirds sing; it’s something in our childhood, something in coming of age, something in the enjoyment of stories and imagination; if writing is how the imagination breathes, writing is how the soul exhales. To write is to dream while you’re awake. As different peoples of our world are different and inherit different genes, different cultures inherit different stories.
Our stories have escaped our planet, finally, and are in interstellar space. The message encoded on Voyager 1 and 2 was a message from our entire species. We wish to be remembered; this message may be a murmur, but it is the echo of our planet and our species, to one purpose to express: Remember us. If nothing else it will be a haunting, a ghost’s way to perpetuate itself, a more eloquent ghost perhaps.
There are a variety of images and sounds, extravagant and mundane, natural and contrived—Mozart and Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and greetings in fifty-five languages. Sounds of animals are also included; for example, the record contains sounds of crickets and frogs, hyenas, elephants, frogs and chimpanzees. There are soundbytes of a kiss, a mother and a child, footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter.
It is a golden message in a bottle, and time capsule, a record of our species looking to be remembered with this encyclopedic representation of what it is to be a citizen of Earth, to be human,, to be empathetic and hopeful that someday, when this Golden Record approaches another solar system, it will not only be found—it will be understood. The message included from then American President Jimmy Carter sums up the desires and yearnings of the human race to have a place in the history of the cosmos. As Carl Sagan said,
‘These are the murmurs of Earth.’ It is a beautiful summation of the highest nature of mankind. It is ambitious, noble, and hopeful.
‘We cast this message into the cosmos … Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and understands these recordings, here is our message. This is a gift from a small and distant planet, a token of our sounds, science, images, music, thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live in yours. We hope, someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope, determination, and goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.’
And through our understanding our empathy, through empathy identification, and in that identification, we see our lives anew; forever permanent, figures drawn by words; and in this mausoleum, we live—and death for us loses our fear in knowing that memories are those ghosts, and memories are stories, and those stories evolve into who we are, and stand in our place when our legs are too weak to hold us up and, forever young, we join the company of these ghosts to say to you we lived and when you’re gone, we’ll welcome you to our palace, to our gallery, and the living will redraw you when you leave. They’ll resurrect you in their paint and in their ink.
Literature isn’t a haunted house, no place for a banshee; a book, a poem, a play—each is a prism, a palatial gallery of characters we love and hate and envy and desire and need, and each book is its own room at the palace, complete with its guide, complete with its perfectly framed snapshots, snapshots from all the world, from every moment of the small slit in the window we have on record for our species, every emperor and conqueror, every peasant and chambermaid, every hero and every villain, the men and women we dream of, the men and women we strive to be. You are alive, brief though it is, and when you pass into Dylan’ Thomas’s sweet night, there’s a place for you on the page with us, with us in the Shadow Gallery, to say not only that we lived, but in this we are alive; and in this we do not die. And for the rest of the time this little blue ball of ours keeps going and churning and the sun still shines, somewhere on a shelf, this book might one day be found, and when it’s opened, I spring to life again to say that I lived, I loved, and ,my life had value.
Writing is the chronicle of our fantasies and our lives, and within them the obsessions and passions are amplified, and we think in broader, brighter colors, in glorious Technicolor. We will rise each time that page is turned. Here, as Dylan Thomas said, death has no dominion. You can’t kill the idea; you cannot kill the living word, not with nuclear weapons or automatic rifles.
It gives humanity to oppressed people. It lets us understand victims as they were, not as just a broken person. It acts out the moral and religious schisms in our culture. It looks through the past into the present. It refines us. It defines. It gives us heroes and comfort and passion. Art is the religion of a faithless world.
The living word is immortal, and in it so are we. And with this final word, I join the shadow gallery. When you read a book, a lot of time you are talking to a ghost, or aspects of a writer externalized, many having died so long ago. Writing is the only communication we have. It is our way to commune with the spirit world. Every time you open a book, you’re performing necromancy. There are many charlatans, and mediums and psychics, but if you want to hear a message from the beyond, open your favorite book and find a friendly ghost; they’re always willing to talk, willing to tell you everything, anything, but most of all that they lived. Opening a book is necromancy, and the benefactors dedicate their lives to it, to haunting the dreampool of our world.
The prologue is hello; the denouement goodbye.
— Brandon K. Nobles,
27 February 2015
Wish you were here