Sunday, June 19, 2016

He and his Man

When The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, was published in 1719, it was received by many as a factual account. And there was good reason to do so; many sailors who had been castaways had written narratives, and in an era when not all the globe had yet been charted, there was still plenty of room for unknown "desert isles" (the phrase means deserted isles -- no sand is present or implied!).

But it turned out that the book was the work of Daniel Defoe, whose other great claim to fame was a similar portmanteau of fact and fiction, A Journal of the Plague Year. In both texts, Defoe used actual journals, reminiscences, and newspaper articles as his sources, mimicking the language, tone, and apparatus of his sources, tossing in numbers and dates and longitudes and latitudes to set the seal of truth upon his sly fictions. The story of Alexander Selkirk, who really had been stranded on a remote island for four years, provided the thread in this case. And, as Defoe's latter-day follower Edgar Allan Poe once wrote in a review, "how wonderful has been the result!"

We must now fast forward to some point in the 1940's, when the young John Maxwell Coetzee got his hands upon a copy of the book; it became a treasured favorite, and when, some time later, he found an encyclopedia article saying that Daniel Defoe was the author of Robinson Crusoe, he experienced, by his own account, an existential crisis: how could Robinson Crusoe, the man, have an author? Thus the preamble, and the title, to the lecture he delivered on receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Crusoe, of course, already had a "man" (in English usage of the day, "man" was short for "manservant"), whom he'd dubbed "Friday." But now, stranger still, he had another man, or another man had him -- the author.

Coetzee had explored this years earlier in his own novel, Foe - but the Nobel lecture gives us a shorter, sweeter apothegm of the curious postcolonial echoes of Defoe's original story.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The postcolonial turn

Postcolonial literature is a very broad category; it includes African writers such as Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ama Ata Aidoo, Wole Soyinka, and Chinua Achebe; Indian-British and Indian-American writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, and Jhumpa Lahiri, and Caribbean writers such as Maryse Condé, Marlene Nourbese Philip, and Michelle Cliff, among many others. They are part of a movement in which, to quote one critical assessment, the "Empire Writes Back" -- the former subjects of Colonialism send their rich and sharply-tones missives back towards that center which cannot hold. There are even some "white" writers (in the sense in which that term has been employed, deployed, and invoked) on the fringes of the former empire whose works may belong here as well: Michael Ondaatje, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee.

Postcolonial literature has its own particular power, and particular problems. Should a po-co writer use the language of the colonizer in his or her work? Or is it true that, as Audre Lorde argued, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house"? Should postcolonial writers embody the vernacular literature of their home countries, as did (for example) Amos Tutuola? Or should they garner laurels by embracing highly contemporary, international forms and genres, as did Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe? Or does "literature" itself, as a category, constitute an artificial boundary left over from the colonial era; why shouldn't postcolonial "writing include" (for example) the lyrics of Bob Marley or the oral poetry of griots? What role do the old demarcations of race, caste, and class do to the potential solidarity of postcolonial writing -- or what does gender? And, lastly, is it best to see postcolonial writing as an international, or transnational phenomenon, or is it preferable not to group together writers from different nations, cultures, and epochs?

Finally, there is the question of the reader of this literature. Are we, ourselves, as residents of "developed" nations which have long benefitted from being atop the economic and social heap (at the expense of poorer nations and peoples), in a sense 'the enemy' of these writings? Are they meant for us at all? Should such work then be, as Manuel Puig entitled one of his novels, an "Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages"? These are the questions which animate the field of postcolonial literature, and which we'll consider -- albeit all too briefly -- as we read a few of its exemplary texts.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Couple of Stories by Mansfield and Joyce

Modernism has always, it seems, had a bit of a gender problem. For decades, there was a critical double-standard that relegated women -- Richardson, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys, and Katherine Mansfield -- to a second tier -- while enfolding men such as Joyce, Kafka, Forster, and Fitzgerald in canonical vestments.  Perhaps the only woman of the period to escape this phenomenon was Gertrude Stein -- but then, her modernism was quite unlike anyone else's, and she was at the center of an artistic circle filled with male writers and artists.  But now, at last, there does seem to be a correction, and many now see Virginia Woolf as the pre-eminent novelist of the period. Another beneficiary of our corrected hindsight is Katherine Mansfield, whose short stories are perhaps the finest of the entire Modernist movement, including one -- "Prelude" -- which became just the second publication of Virginia and Leonard Woolf's Hogarth Press. Mansfield, too, was a bit of an outsider, a New Zealander who never felt entirely at home in Britain. She had the misfortune of striking up a long, on-again, off-again relationship with John Middleton Murry, a man who never really grasped her genius but nevertheless made himself her literary guardian; her early death from tuberculosis in 1923 put Murry in charge of her estate, and he extensively censored her letters and journals when they were published.

Joyce, during his career, sought to establish himself as the great voice of Modernism, and something more, its representative. Although he did not originate the technique of "stream of consciousness," his "eiphanies" -- which began with Dubliners in 1914 -- recast the notion, and with Ulysses (1922) he had his greatest triumph. Here was a novel the action of which took place all in a single day (16 June), in a single town (Dublin), and wove its words through the streams of every street, tarrying amidst idle thoughts of one of its idlest characters, Leopold Bloom. Joyce's presence was felt throughout the period from the early twenties to the outbreak of WWII, and not simply through his books, but via his habit of putting forth sections of his "Work in Progress" in literary magazinesjournals, and chapbooks throughout this period. His final work, Finnegans Wake (note the absence of an apostrophe) was his densest, written in what one critic has called "the language of the night" -- polyglot, punning, and peristrephic.

To give but a few examples: In FW, Joyce coins the word "fadograph" -- of course this is "photograph," with the punning suggestion that it "fades" over time -- but it is also a pun on the Irish Gaelic word fádo, which means "long ago" (many Irish folktales start with this word). There are also any number of other collusions and collisions of language, ranging from the "hundred letter thunder word" (made up of the word for thunder in dozens of languages) to the endless acronymic variations on the letters HCE ("Here Comes Everybody," "Haveth Childers Everywhere," "Howth Castle and Environs," and many more). It's a work of genius, surely, but one so closely-woven and multi-layered that it can really only be digested in small doses.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yeats & Co.

One of the little ironies of twentieth-century 'British' literature is that most of the best of it was written by people who were born outside of Britain, places like Bombay, Dublin, Cape TownBloemfonteinOgidi, AbeokutaBerdychiv, and even (in the case of adopted Brit T.S. Eliot) St. Louis, Missouri. And the first harbinger of this shift from the purported center of Anglophone writing was, without doubt, the 'Irish Literary Renaissance' that had its origins in Dublin in the 1880's and 1890's. Ironically, the first wave of this movement sought to restore Irish Gaelic language and culture; its leaders, such as Douglas Hyde and his Gaelic League, scorned English as the tongue of the oppressor. At the same time, however, a small and loosely affiliated group of writers in Dublin were starting to establish a national literature and theatre in English; among their numbers were the poet George William Russell (known as Æ), the playwright John Millington Synge, along with James Stephens, Ella Young, Lady Gregory, and George Moore. Yeats, a brash young poet, was among the first to gain wider recognition, and in fact after a relatively brief period when he was active in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, spent most of the rest of his life in London. His early poems were steeped in the old Irish tradition, beginning in 1889 with The Wanderings of Oisin (a sort of Irish 'Ancient Mariner') and evocations of traditional ballads ("The Song of the Wandering Aengus")  In his middle years, he dabbled in occultism, joining the somewhat infamous Order of the Golden Dawn (which counted Aleister Crowley and S.L. MacGregor Mathers among its members) and becoming enamored of Wyndam Lewis and the "Vorticist" movement. He captured the spirit of Irish resentment ("An Irish Airman Foresees his Death") and memorialized the Irish rebellion with "Easter 1916." His poetry continued to evolve throughout his career, culminating in the rich, dark, ironic modernism of "Sailing to Byzantium," "The Second Coming," and "The Circus Animals' Desertion." By the end of his life, Yeats could be seen to represent a new efflorescence of lyricism, something not known in English since the Romantics, and not -- alas -- heard much since.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Jekyll and Hyde

Since its first publication in 1886, "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" has never been out of print. Stage adaptations began the next year, 1887, and the first film version was released in 1910. By one count, there have been 123 film versions in all. In both stage and film versions, the same actor is traditionally cast in both roles, and the high point of the drama is the "transformation scene" in which Jekyll becomes Hyde. Happily, many of these are now available on YouTube; you can see the earliest surviving film version from 1912, along with the performances of Frederic March, John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Boris Karloff, and even Bugs Bunny.

It's too bad, though, that nearly every version of this story has Mr. Hyde physically looking monstrous. The stage transformations, of course, relied more on the actors' ability to manipulate their expression, stance, and movements, but nearly every film gives Hyde fangs, hair, and a hunchback. This misses the whole point of Stevenson's story, which is that Hyde's "deformity" was inward; no one who saw him could quite put their finger on why his appearance made them suddenly want to kill him. Simply put: Mr. Hyde walks among us, or perhaps within us, and there is no sure way of detecting the transformation from the respectable to the detestable.

Perhaps we all have "secret selves." After all, we're social creatures, and there's no reason we should act or feel the same when we are in different company, or by ourselves. But the million small acts of repression required to shape our social identities can't help but have some effect on our psyche. These repressed thoughts may surface briefly in dreams or nightmares, may spur the creativity of artists. Indeed, some performers, such as Marilyn Manson, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Ghoulardi, or the Gravediggaz, have made careers out of wearing their horror on their sleeve. We can then be reassured when we see that, off stageand out of makeup, these performers are "nice" people -- but what of the reverse? What of those who, though outwardly nice, respectable citizens, are leading double lives, in one of which they are cheating on their partners, betting on dogfights, frequenting prostitutes, or gambling away their life savings?

So perhaps Jekyll and Hyde are, more or less, symptoms of civilization, a double metaphor for what we must all do to survive in a world of pressures and performances. The common view is that the Victorian society of Stevenson's day was far more restricted and repressed than ours; no wonder such men created monsters! Or are we just as repressed, perhaps even more so?

Is Jekyll and Hyde a story for its time, or for all time? What parallels do you see between the psychological world it presents and the world of today? How far from us, in 2014, is that decrepit old house with its mouldering green door? And who of us has the key?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Victorian Era

The Victorian era remains in many ways the most curious of our precursors, seeming almost a phantasmic preview of so many ideas, issues, and institutions. This vision has its darker sides -- the problem of poverty, and the question of social welfare; the need for a government role in providing or certifying sanitation, education, and hospitals; the difficulty of understanding or treating mental illness -- as well as its brighter ones: the expansion of railways and the enabling of travel over long distances to those of modest means; the rise of literacy and popular literature; and the birth of numerous technologies without which our world would seem hard to imagine: photography, the fax machine, the telephone, and the cinema.

For our purposes, the rise in literacy is perhaps the most significant social change of the era. In part due to the establishment of a system of schools for the poor, in part to the increasing size of the middle classes, and in both cases driven by economic need more than a desire to enlighten the masses; between 1840 and 1900 a largely illiterate Britain was transformed into a land of nearly universal literacy. The new and growing mass audience drove a revolution in print, with newspapers vastly increasing their circulation, and made a world in which a serialized popular author such as Dickens gained wealth and fame far beyond anything available to writers of earlier generations. For those who could not afford to purchase books to feed their appetites, there was Mudie's Library, the Netflix of its day; if Mudie's felt that a book would do well, they would purchase 2,000 to 3,000 copies at a stroke, greatly affecting the shape of popular literacy.

We ourselves, in fact, stand in an institution -- the former Rhode Island Normal School -- which was in many regards the equivalent of the Victorian teacher training schools. And, ironically enough, the great project of establishing and funding a public education for all, the offspring of this era (and of advocates such as Henry Barnard and Horace Mann) is now, once again, a problem child, with great debates raging on school reform and how to fix the system.

Exploitative labor, the other great social problem of the Victorian era, continues as well, though mostly out of sight of the middle-class consumers of today. We've outsourced our exploitation to China, the Philippines, and American Samoa, and hidden our piece-workers deep in the recesses of half-abandoned buildings. Those who harvest our crops are equally invisible, though there if we care to see them. So until such work can be completely automated -- or until, as Stephen Colbert has said, we can develop "vegetables that pick themselves," we too must address this still-neglected problem of human society.

All this calls into question another idea we inherited from the Victorians: progress. If, a hundred a nine years after the death of Queen Victoria, we're still struggling with the same old social issues, what can "progress" mean?

Sunday, May 15, 2016


All of us know the story of Frankenstein -- or do we? Some of our collective memories come from the James Whale film of 1931, which introduced Boris Karloff as the Monster, or its descendants and parodies, such as Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein of 1974. Every year at Halloween, there are any number of young monsters at our door, and the image is deeply ingrained into our popular culture. From Frankenberry cereal to Herman Munster; from Edward Scissorhands to the Terminator, the image of a terrifying man-made man seems to haunt our technological era.

But how many know the story of the original novel? Written by Mary Shelley when she was only eighteen years old, and published anonymously in 1818, it gives us a very different "monster," one who can talk eloquently, argue philosophy, and revel in the poetry of Milton. It also gives us a rather different Victor Frankenstein, a haunted, romantic soul whose quest was inspired by Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa. It's a story which has never fully been brought to film or television, and thus a surprise to many of its readers.

One of the most fascinating episodes in the book is where the Creature stumbles upon a lost valise with several old books:
One night, during my accustomed visit to the neighbouring wood, where I collected my own food, and brought home firing for my protectors, I found on the ground a leathern portmanteau, containing several articles of dress and some books. I eagerly seized the prize, and returned with it to my hovel. Fortunately the books were written in the language the elements of which I had acquired at the cottage; they consisted of Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch's Lives, and the Sorrows of Werter. The possession of these treasures gave me extreme delight; I now continually studied and exercised my mind upon these histories, whilst my friends were employed in their ordinary occupations.
And so, we too can peer over the Creature's shoulder, since John Milton's Paradise Lost, the Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans by Plutarch, and the Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe are all readily available to our eyes.  In addition, we can also now read Volney's Ruins of Empire -- the book used in the schoolroom where the Creature got his learning -- online.

Yet given the sad fate of the Creature, it is hard not to wonder what his life might have been like if there had been different books in that fabled valise. So: if you had the power, what three books would you put within the creature's grasp, and why?