Essays from the Expository Writing Program Harvard College | 2007â€“2008
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Foreword ach year Exposé showcases outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Expository Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since the writing program was founded in 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena. The work is not easy. Over the course of a semester, students must tackle three essay assignments on topics likely unfamiliar to them. For each assignment, students must negotiate difficult texts and concepts, and draft and revise their essays as deadlines in multiple courses loom. But as the essays in this issue attest, students in Expos answer the challenge with impressive grace and powers of reflection. Our thanks go to Gordon Gray, whose generosity allows us to publish Exposé. We are grateful, as well, to Jim Engell for writing this year’s guest column. Special thanks to Doug Woodhouse, our executive editor, and Ashley Lazonick, our layout designer. We are also grateful to the artists, foundations, libraries, museums, and corporations who granted us permission to reprint images. We reserve our greatest thanks for the student writers whose work appears in this issue as well as to the teachers who guided them along the way. With each essay, these writers have given readers—whether in Expos classes this year or for the years to come, whether here at Harvard or beyond—an invitation to join a memorable intellectual conversation.
Tom Jehn Interim Director of Expository Writing
Heather Fielding Editor Liz Greenspan Editor Marlon Kuzmick Editor
Front Cover Image: Keyboard on a Vintage Typewrtier. 2001. © image 100/Corbis Copyright © 2008 The President and Fellows of Harvard College Editorial correspondence may be addressed to Marlon Kuzmick, Exposé, 8 Prescott Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Essays from the Expository Writing Program Harvard College, 2008–2009 Guest Column An Open Letter to Students in Expos Jim Engell . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .iv
The Infamous Hourglass: Constructing the Perfect Female Figure Elise Liu . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
Gothicism and Madness: Where Reality and Consciousness Intersect Noah Hoch . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .9
The Farmer and the Scavenger Bonnie Kavoussi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .16
The Tempering Frame: Narrative Technique Within “The Kreutzer Sonata” And “Ariadna” Peter Bernard . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .21
Peasants in Paradise: A Struggle For Power Scott Levin . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .26
Split City: Economic and Cultural Divisions in Modern Mumbai Tess Hellgren . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .30
Stalemate: “A Game of Chess” between Author and Reader in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land Tim Lambert . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .36
Antigone as a Gateway to Civic Obligation in The Island Arnav Tripathy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .41
Not My Blood Ian Thompson . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .48
Notes from the Authors . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .55
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Guest Column Jim Engell
An Open Letter to Students in Expos ollege may help secure a career. More broadly and ideally, it opens up multiple career choices, enriches citizenship in a nation and in the world, and leads to making a positive difference in a global population facing challenges of inequality, health, environment, security, conflict, and sustainability. Look ahead just a few years or months at what your new writing assignments might be:
• research and contribute to majority and minority opinions by an associate justice of the Supreme Court • convince a state government to care properly for abused children • clarify a paper on biochemical aspects of a new immunization
• write a grant request for a citizens’ environmental movement • report on the Rwandan genocide by drawing from hundreds of personal interviews • write film and theater reviews for the New York Times • contribute to the debate on ownership of works of art illegally exported from their home countries • maintain the value of preserving Native American languages • produce policy papers for a national broadcasting network • write a book on Emerson and Coleridge
prepare a federal case prosecuting high-level government corruption
• write feature stories for the Los Angeles Times • argue for a new view of trusts established for disabled individuals • interpret data to create a hypothesis for features of Martian geology • produce a speech on educational policy for a major presidential candidate
• after several tours of duty in Iraq, communicate conditions on the ground, and how to improve them, directly to the highest military commander in the field I’m not making these up, they’re not imagined. Each one is an actual writing “assignment,” most of them with deadlines, and pretty serious ones at that. They all come from my former students at Harvard. The list would be longer if I thought about it more, and a few hundred times longer if I asked colleagues to add examples from their students. What prepares anyone to write even a few of these varied things? Beyond the obvious, that it’s necessary to commit yourself not just to
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getting the job done in an acceptable way but to finishing it with your best prose, there’s the equally obvious answer that you do learn some writing skills on the job, that each profession, field of knowledge, and area of expertise follows its own conventions, even to some degree its own vocabulary. Everyone begins to learn these when they write, say, a paper in economics, psychology, physics, or history. Yet, something more important and more fundamental must happen first. It’s often called “basic,” but it’s actually hard and frustrating to learn. In fact, it’s sophisticated. It’s the ability— the desire—to practice self-criticism about your own prose, to worry about improving it to the nth degree, not to the point of perfectionism that paralyzes, but to the extent that revisions in structure and style are always on the table, often performed, and frequently revised yet again. The best initial stage in the whole process is demanding: learn how to invent a new argument (not an “exploration” or summary) about a problem or issue, place it in context, marshal evidence to support it, imagine the best counterargument or interpretation against yours and demolish it, then, finally, finish by creating a focus so intense that your reader will not easily forget, even six months later, what you’ve said. This is the essence of good “academic writing,” and there’s nothing “academic” about it. Such rhetorical power is the way the real world works—in politics and diplomacy, in law, in historical interpretation, in spiritual persuasion, in op-eds that carry clout, in scientific revolutions, and, yes, in academic debate and the advancement of knowledge.
The skill this entails takes time to acquire. Really good writers in English have never attained their best prose style before the age of thirty! But already, ten years before that, it’s clear who is trying, and who is not. Success in any profession or career, short of those that are purely quantitative or purely manual, depends in large measure on the ability to communicate effectively. Those who enjoy that success start to care about it early on, and aren’t too apathetic or overscheduled to make use of all coaching and help available. I’ve written this candidly and directly because in the coming years, perhaps in the next few months, you’ll be asked to write—many times you’ll want to write—articles, essays, editorials, speeches, reviews, letters, and interpretations that will make a difference, for the better, in a world that even now desperately needs your knowledge and your skill.
Jim Engell Chair, Standing Committee on Writing and Speaking Chair, Department of English
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Elise Liu’s essay was awarded the 2008 Sosland Prize in Expository Writing
The Infamous Hourglass: Constructing the Perfect Female Figure “The corset will live as long as the innate desire to please lives in woman’s heart…One can destroy a religion, overthrow a government; against the corset one can do nothing!…Hail, O corset! You are blessed by all women, and even those whom nature has overwhelmed with gifts cannot pass your competitive exam…May your power grow still greater, if this is possible, and may your name be glorified all over the earth…Amen.” —Advertisement for Léoty corsets, La Vie Parisienne, 1886:127.
f all kinds of human striving, the pursuit of beauty is the most romanticized, the most visceral, and the most elusive. We do not pen sonnets to exalt brilliance or commend late-night studying; we do not compose symphonies to honor terrific strength or recognize arduous weight training. No: we celebrate wit, daring, bravado, honesty, and faithfulness—qualities of character, not of arbitrary genetic advantage. Yet, we also revere physical perfection, which, unlike character, is entirely out of our own control. Or is it? As long as there has been henna, rouge, chalk, flax, oil, or even water, women have scrubbed, stained, stretched, and sculpted their bodies to fit the beauty conventions of their time. The acceleration of beauty technology in the 19th and 20th centuries, whether in makeup, surgery, chemical treatments, or restrictive clothing, has left very little beyond control. Today, it seems that beauty can be earned, not simply inherited, and, suddenly, that “there are no ugly women, only lazy ones” (Helena Rubinstein, qtd. in Riordan, 2004:vii). Technology has truly freed women from the shackles of their genetic heritage. But it has also made them slaves to constant striving. The democratization of beauty did not make attaining it easy. If science has made each woman more beautiful, it has also raised the stakes for all women. The Victorian-era corset perfectly exemplifies how a once-sensible preference for health and vitality was exaggerated by technological progress into an irrational obsession. Indeed, no other single physical characteristic can compete in importance to the stylized “hourglass” figure of the human female. Nose length, hair luster, neck arch, nail sheen—these are minor considerations next to the endless quest for the perfect figure. And though fickle fashions have, at different times, prized emaciated bones, wiry muscles, voluptuous bulges and slender curves, the preference for comparatively small waists and wider hips has remained constant. This 0.7 to 1 waist-to-hip ratio is itself a kind of “Golden Number,” albeit one that few women actually possess (Etcoff, 1999:194). The whalebone and steel corsets of the 20th century are perhaps the most infamous technologies dedicated to this pursuit. And they have generated a veritable cottage industry of debate. Everyone from evolutionary biologists to contemporary feminists has sounded off on the origins of the comically tiny waists of the Victorian era. But the answer to this phenomenon lies somewhere in between their theories: corsets were the inevitable consequence of a mismatch between the aggressive pace of
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technological development and evolutionarily stagnant human preferences. Though my analysis is unabashedly heteronormative, partly to reflect the cultural dominance of strict gender roles in the corset’s time, and partly to simplify my own task, it speaks to questions of self-image that all women face no matter what their sexual orientation. And though it is focused narrowly upon the female sex, ignoring men What is the cost of the altogether, it speaks to the endless struggle for self-improvement and endless pursuit of perfect rejection of natural boundaries that all humans face no matter what goals they set for themselves. What beauty, aided by all the is the cost of the endless pursuit of perfect beauty, aided by all the imperfect arts that human imperfect arts that human progress has afforded us? And if our imperprogress has afforded fect intuitions lead us to reach beyond the natural into the realm of us? And if our imperfect fetish, can we accept the alternative of ceasing to strive altogether? It began innocently enough. intuitions lead us to reach According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded menbeyond the natural into tion of the word “corset” is a 1299 account of the fashions at the court the realm of fetish, of King Edward I (qtd. in Etcoff, 1999:194). For many centuries, can we accept the corsets were an accessory of noble ladies; little more than a thick cloth bodice, they constricted the waist alternative of ceasing lightly and emphasized the breasts (Steele, 2001:6). But with the first to strive altogether? true corsets, made of “whalebone bodices” in the early sixteenth century, came the first cases of tight-lacing, the process by which “young Virgins…thinking a Slender-Waist a great beauty, strive all that they possibly can by streight-lacing themselves, to attain unto a wand-like smallnesse of Waste [sic]” (Bulwer, 1653:338-339). Tightlacing in this era was not yet extreme, primarily because the technology was too crude for it to be. As a supporting material, whalebone was weaker than its successors, and susceptible to breakage; therefore, stays were not quite form-fitting and left more space for the expansion of the diaphragm. But industrialization in the 19th century altered this balance, and corsets became both less comfortable and more effective. Metal eyelets, patented in 1825,
made it possible to lace them more tightly. Cording and light boning in the 1830s made them stiffer and easier to shape (Riordan, 2004:177). Steam-molding after 1869 allowed corset-makers to generate standardized, ideal figures (189). At the same time, the onward march of mass-production empowered middle-class women to take part in corseting as never before (180). Suddenly, corsets and their complements—farthingales, panniers, crinolines, and bustles—were everywhere, cinching the waist, flattening the stomach, plumping the breasts, augmenting the hips, exaggerating the rear, or otherwise molding the typically soft, sedentary body of the middle- or upper-class young woman into an impossibly curvaceous living doll. From childhood, these girls were quite literally shaped by the demands of beauty, trained like young saplings in the steel cages of cultural expectations. And by the turn of the 20th century, corsets had become so common that “physicians began to believe women came that way” (Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986:231). Of course, when it became possible for ordinary women to purchase corsets that only the wealthiest could once afford, what used to pass for extraordinary would no longer do. Standards would have to rise, and they did: at the height of the corseting craze, the most fashionable women reportedly had their lower five ribs removed (231).1 While even the women of the time acknowledged that the “healthy average waist” was not less than 26 inches (The Family Herald, 1848), most women restricted themselves to 23 or 25 inches, and the social queens of the time boasted of 18-inch waists or even smaller (Steele, 2001:88). Technology made the impossible ordinary, and, unchecked, the human tendency for excess took over. Corsets had the power to harness the wildest fantasies of the imagination, and were taken up by tightlacing fetishists seeking waists of seventeen, sixteen, or even fifteen inches. Even ordinary women often reduced their waists far beyond the 0.7-to-1 ideal (92). It is not that the health dangers of corsets were not known at the time—far from it. A
It is important to note that scholars continue to disagree on whether or not women removed their ribs. Steele most recently questioned the bases for this information; however, it remains part of conventional wisdom about the era.
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vibrant literature of criticism—primarily authored, much to latter-day feminists’ chagrin, by men—flourished alongside the thriving corset industry. Under the penname Luke Limner, illustrator and essayist John Leighton wrote the most famous of these critiques. Madre Natura versus the Moloch of fashion blamed the corset for a litany of problems from reduced fertility to fainting fits, and portrayed the women who wore it as victims who had “escaped from death [and] to this day bear evidence...in the form of scars where the flesh has been seared, and contracted joints where the bones have been broken” (Leighton,1874:12). Understandably, these images horrify the modern reader. Corseting appears monstrous, perverse, inhuman. And yet it was a cherished and common practice until only a century ago. How could it have happened? The emerging field of evolutionary psychology provides some answers. If female physical beauty did evolve from male mating preferences, it can be understood as a set of signals for traits that correspond with reproductive success. Those traits include: fertility, or whether a woman is hormonally balanced and a fully developed female; health, or whether she is likely to carry her child to term and survive birth; nulliparity, or whether she has previously undergone pregnancy; and youth, or how long she has been ovulating past earliest childbearing age. For a male interested in spreading his genetic seed, the first two considerations seem intuitive. The last two are trickier. Not only would nulliparity and youth favor a woman’s direct reproductive success, measured in the likelihood that her fetus would survive (Fretts et al., 1995), they would have even greater importance to the prospective father: without previous offspring, his own would face less competition for its mother’s attention; likewise, a younger mate could offer a monopoly on all childbearing years and therefore both security and abundance in reproductive opportunities. A vibrant psychological literature is predicated on exactly that assumption (Kenrick and Keefe 1992). Recent evidence shows that the signal theory of beauty holds especially well with respect to perceptions of the female figure. Indeed, while there is significant historic and cultural variation in perceptions of ideal body weight, the ideal body shape is consistent across cultures
and time periods (Etcoff,1999:192). This shape is defined by the ratio of the waist to the hip: in men, it is about 0.9-to-1; in women, it is 0.7-to-1 (191). This is the “Golden ratio” that defines the great beauties of pop culture today: we see it in Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe; in supermodels, Playboy bunnies, and Miss Americas. Despite substantial variation in height, weight, style, and audience, their waist-to-hip ratios all fall between 0.68 and 0.72 (193). And Technology made the psychologist Devendra Singh has found that this ratio—not body impossible ordinary, and, weight—best predicted which figures people of all ages, genders, and unchecked, the human races find attractive (Singh 1993:293-307). tendency for excess took Crucially, the 0.7 waist-to-hip ratio manages to predict each of the four traits essential to reproductive over. Corsets had the success. With respect to fertility and health, a 1993 British Medical power to harness the Journal study found that fat distribution was more important than wildest fantasies of the age or weight to a woman’s likelihood of conceiving by in vitro fertilization (Zaadstra, 1993:484-487). imagination, and were And with respect to youth and nulliparity, it is obvious from the taken up by tightlacing phrase “girlish figure” that the wasp waist is a badge of adolescence: fetishists seeking waists “ephemeral…disappear[ing] early in pregnancy and hard to regain” of seventeen, sixteen, or (Etcoff, 1999:191). At first glance, then, the logic of the waist-to-hip even fifteen inches. ratio seems to validate corseting entirely. To an average woman of ratio 0.8 or 0.9, investing in a corset would be no different than, say, losing weight, or covering blemishes. The golden ratio would be a perfectly natural goal to strive for—a standard of health and fertility as obvious as a target BMI or clear skin. But how natural are our ideals? Some seem convincingly so. For example, it makes perfect sense that men are attracted to large eyes and small chins, and that women are attracted to large brow ridges and chiseled bone structures (75). The former indicates low and the latter high levels of testosterone. Likewise, the nearly universal attraction in both sexes for healthy muscle tone, clear skin, and symmetrical features has a clear basis in health and vitality.
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But the exaggerations embraced by breast enlargement surgery and competitive bodybuilding, as well as the caricatures we portray in manga and airbrushed photos, reflect an uneasy scientific fact: human sensors of beauty are not perfectly tuned to anatomical realities (26). Some ‘natural’ preferences may not be so natural after all. Indeed, this is precisely what thinkers of the third-wave feminist movement of the 1990s insisted. They argued that beauty was not a biological fact at all. With Naomi Wolf’s blistering critique of “the beauty myth” as its manifesto, that school declared that female beauty was solely a social construction perpetrated by men: a “myth…claim[ing] to be a celebration of women…[but] actually composed of emotional distance, politics, finance, and sexual repression. The beauty myth is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power” (Wolf, 1991:12-13). Wolf’s logic is compelling in light of the corset’s symbolic meaning for the women who relied on it. Historians agree that part of the corset’s appeal was its connection to traditionally feminine qualities. Stays represented virtue, chastity, and good breeding (Hatfield and Sprecher, 1986:232), while “an unlaced waist was regarded as a vessel of sin” (Rudofsky, 1972:111): coarse, unrefined, and promiscuous. It is impossible to imagine this symbolism without a patriarchal context in which female sexuality is suppressed and controlled at the whims of men. And it takes little imagination to understand a sexual entrapment device, used almost entirely by women with social aspirations, as a manifestation of broader chauvinist control. Wolf saw this control as a fundamental pattern in Victorian society. She blamed physicians in particular for teaching women that they had to be saved from their own vitality, sexuality, and physical freedom. “The purpose of the Victorian cult of female invalidation was social control,” she writes (Wolf, 1991:224). And to some extent, texts from the time show that the “cult” was real: It is true, the corset impairs the [naked] personal attractiveness of the wearer, but the loss suffered on that score is offset by the gain in reputability which comes of her visibly increased expensiveness and infirmity (Veblen, 1911: 172).
Apparently, by Thornstein Veblen’s time, the beauty of the corseted waist was not wholly or even predominantly physical—quite the opposite. If women had once worn corsets to appear more beautiful, by the early 20th century they were doing so to be more beautiful—that is, the corset itself became a signal of reproductive success, symbolizing the things that beauty itself is supposed to represent. Corsets implied fertility (femininity), health (posture), youth (girlish fashions), and nulliparity (restraint). Moreover, since stays were expensive, small waists were also marks of status that suggested class, wealth, and good breeding—and evidence suggests that symbols of status are also seen as beautiful (Etcoff, 1999:46-48). Eventually, women may have corseted for the corset’s own sake; an undergarment once used to cheat age and genetic misfortune had become an inescapable social norm. As accurate as Wolf is that corseting was at least in part a cultural construction, it would be a mistake to blame the phenomenon wholly upon men, as she does. Valerie Steele notes in Corset: A Cultural History that it was “older women, not men, [who] were primarily responsible for enforcing sartorial norms...the cultural weight placed on propriety and respectability made it difficult for women to abandon the corset, even if they wanted to” (Steele, 2001:51). Wolf would likely reply that it was men who maintained control by the very fact that it was men who these women strove to impress, whose perpetration of the beauty myth created such norms in the first place (Wolf, 1991:59). But that answer is problematic for two reasons. First, it ignores a crucial complication: even feminists and female physicians at the time were conflicted about corseting, with many arguing that reasonable lacing was consistent with feminist ideals (Steele, 2001:59). Second, it tells us only the obvious—that women sought to impress men—and tells us nothing about why they employed corsetry in particular to reach that goal. For an answer to that question, we must return to the work done by evolutionary psychologists, whose work indicated that the 0.7-to-1 waist-to-hip ratio was a valid measurement of both beauty and reproductive success. It is also through their work that we may reconcile the popularity of corseting with our modern intuition that it was dangerous, destructive, and fundamentally irrational. They reveal that what
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Advertisements for women’s corsets published in Ladies’ World. 1895. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
seems obvious now—the ridiculous heights that corseting assumed—might have been less apparent after centuries of habituation to ever-shrinking standards of waist size. Psychological evidence suggests that humans are susceptible to hyperstimuli: we react more strongly to exaggerations of things that have proven through natural selection to be useful, because our perception of excess is not finely tuned. The power of hyperstimuli is most obvious when it comes to food. We love salty, sweet, fatty foods much more than a healthy diet requires; an understanding of hyperstimuli suggests that we do so because our bodies evolved in a time when things rich in salt, sugar, and fat were rare. For a hunter-gatherer facing starvation on a daily basis, the very idea of modern diseases like obesity and heart disease would have been patently absurd (Pinker, 1997:195). What is true about our tastes in food is also true of our tastes in each other: in experiments on facial attractiveness, researchers have discovered that both hyperfemininity in women (Perrett et al., 1998) and hypermasculinity2 in men (Thornhill and Gangestad, 2008) are preferred over average, healthy proportions; women invest in lip injections, and men in shoulder pads for that very reason. Preferences for waist-hip ratios could have evolved in the same way: since wasp waists are naturally uncommon in women, the smallest waists were the most reproductively effective, and there would be no reason to evolve a precise sense of what was too narrow. Equipped with only a general attraction to small waists, then, people would be vulnerable to respond to hyperstimuli,
which would only become more extreme as previously extraordinary waists became everyday. Hence the impossible .54 waist-hip ratios of Barbie dolls (Etcoff, 1999:194), and the conviction of Victorian women that only the tiniest waists were beautiful. That is not to say that we have no awareness of the absurd—merely that is not so finely tuned. Few of us will eat spoonfuls of sugar, and even fewer will swallow pure lard; likewise, women eventually jolted to their senses at the sight of Neanderthal-like faces, and Victorian men often complained that extreme tightlacers’ waists were grotesquely small (Steele, 2001:106). But we do willingly eat brownies and crème brûlée—and our love of Big Macs and sodas is largely to blame for the modern obesity epidemic. Likewise, to the people of the corseted age, waists that were merely quite small—say, 22 inches in diameter instead of 18—were unquestionably “elegant and graceful”(107). Between their strong innate preference for the golden ratio and their weaker alarm system for the absurd, there could be no contest: in all but the most ridiculous cases, a smaller waist appeared more attractive. Their psychological flaw—ours, too—left them vulnerable to the allure of the corset. 2
Facial attractiveness is a complicated subject, as researchers have found that women might prefer less-masculine faces when in search of stable, long-term mates, but still prefer masculine features when ovulating. Randy Thornhill and Steven Gangestad argue that this strategy enables women to maximize their reproductive success in terms of both resources, through a faithful partner, and genotype, through a desirable but unfaithful mate.
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Nature versus corsets. 1903. Illus. in: Golden thoughts on chastity and procreation by John William Gibson, p. 107. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-02907. Dr. Warner’s Coraline Corsets. 1895. Published in Ladies' World October, p. 17. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Woman in Corset. 1898. Das Album. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.
And that flaw functions as the missing link in traditional feminist arguments dismissing the corset as a tool of female repression and patriarchal control. Beginning from the assumption that naturally small, uncorseted waists are already beautiful—an assumption the Victorians themselves shared (92-93)—it becomes possible to understand how corseting could have gone to extremes without appealing to radical pronouncements on male dominance or female irresponsibility. Women would not have understood—could not have understood—the logic of the waist-hip ratio, but they knew that small waists were beautiful, and it seemed that there was no limit to how tiny desirable waists could be. Why not strive for ever-smaller ratios? Like large biceps among men, small waists would have gained cultural importance to Victorian women as symbols of social status because of their natural significance. Natural preferences provided an impetus; cultural symbolism followed. And eventually corsets gained enough normative power to at least give the illusion of having entirely replaced the natural symbolism of the Golden ratio. By the turn of the 20th century, corseting had become a social institution. Within twenty
years, however, the practice had all but disappeared. Its precipitous fall can be traced in the medical literature to the turbulent first decades of 1900s, when criticism of corseting grew ever more strident and mainstream. The British Medical Journal was typical of the medical community when it argued in a 1903 book review that “corsets should be abandoned, and women should not even be measured for rational clothing until some days after discarding them, so that the figure should have had time to reapproached the normal” (BMJ, 1903:1003). But medical criticism had existed alongside the corset for its entire history, and its surge is better understood as a symptom of the corset’s decline than as its cause. After all, it was selfstyled medical experts who, declaring existing corsets unhealthy, created the “straight front, S-curve “health corsets” in the late 19th century that constricted women’s bodies far more painfully than “unhealthy” corsets ever had (Riordan, 2004:194). Simply put, previous corset abolitionists often had sexist and medically-inaccurate agendas of their own. And as Steele points out, many of the accusations levied against corsets—that they caused respiratory illness, tuberculosis, miscarriage, and deformity—
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were simply untrue (Steele, 2001). The corset did not fade away because it was unhealthy: we recognize that it was unhealthy because it has, by now, faded away. Instead, the corset declined because its cultural-normative implications became untenable to women claiming social and political liberation—and because technological innovation gave them substitutes that served just as well. Its disappearance mirrored the rise—and fall—of bloomers, the advent of female suffrage, and the spread of now-incontrovertible ideas of female athleticism. Yet, none of these reasons would have been enough without a technological substitute for the corset. Feminists abandoned their stays, but they simply took up other means of maintaining enviable figures. Dieting, exercise, self-conscious posture (143)—these are certainly superior approaches for their reliance on healthy effort, not self-mutilation. Yet, many a 20th-century woman shrugged off her corset only to pull on a Lycra girdle (Riordan, 2004:201) or slide onto an operating table for liposuction. Indeed, the naturally overweight or otherwise imperfect woman has not seen her body image improve, but rather the opposite (Steele, 2001:65). With the shortcut of exterior stays stripped away, she finds herself facing an internal corset of eating disorders and plastic surgery. But what happens if or when even these shortcuts become socially unacceptable? Granted, the corset’s unnatural stranglehold upon women’s figures and men’s imaginations is hard to swallow. It was then what plastic surgery is now and what genetic treatments may one day become: proof, in Leighton’s words, of “the abject littleness and pitiful fatuity with which, even in an assumed condition of high culture, the Human Mind will bow to the tyranny of an ideal, worshipped Despot of its own creation, even to the subjection of body and soul” (Leighton, 1874:25). But it was also liberating. For women with flawed bodies, a corset was a shield; for the overweight, it was the great equalizer that gave them an advantage over smaller women without fat to mold (Steele, 2001:64). The corset trapped women into a spiral of ever-smaller waists and ever-rising standards. But the corset also had this promise: “Those who were not born to beauty could now purchase it” (Riordan, 2004:180). Without these technologies, another equalizer, another means
of striving, will have been eliminated; the hierarchy of the beautiful will have been restored. The corset serves as testament to a truth that still holds today. Women have always faced a devil’s bargain between two kinds of oppression: they may either be slaves to natural endowments, resigning themselves to their luck in the genetic lottery, or they may be slaves to choice, resigning themselves to the ceaseless pursuit of impossible objectives and constant competition The corset serves as with each other. Yet, “invention… changes what is possible” (Riordan testament to a truth 178), and the march of technological progress has made the second that still holds today. option both more tempting and more dangerous. After all, “we are products of evolution and cannot Women have always change instincts…It may be difficult to change human nature, and easier faced a devil’s bargain to start by fooling her” (Etcoff, 1999:74). Today, some women do between two kindsof refuse to fool nature. A significant minority proudly reject makeup, oppression: they may and even more scorn surgery. But commercials like Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” celebrate the same either be slaves to natural beauty that so many women are ashamed to admit that they lack. natural endowments, They are left with a choice that is hardly a choice at all: to revere the resigning themselves arbitrary or chase the nonexistent. As with too many important to their luck in the problems, there is no right answer. As far as we—as a sex, as a society, as a species—are willing to tolerate genetic lottery, or ambition, obsession, and selfdestruction, technology holds great they may be slaves to promise as a way to free us from the vagaries of chance and our natchoice, resigning themural limitations. As far as we are not willing to accept that price, we must selves to the ceaseless accept the arbitrary inequalities of the genetic lottery. Corseting represents a single example of human pursuit of impossible ingenuity gone awry, but the same theme plays out in other technolo- objectives and congies, other situations, and other goals. Beauty, intelligence, strength, stant competition with humor, optimism, sociability: every quality worth having comes more each other. easily to some than to others. Whether we choose to fight that
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tragic fact about our species will determine the narrow path future technologies navigate between the palpable and the unearthly, the ordinary and the extraordinary, the appallingly callous and the heartbreakingly human.
Bibliography Bulwer, John. 1653. The Artificial Changeling. London: William Hunt.
Steele, Valerie. 2001. Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press. Thornhill, Randy, and Steven W. Gangestad. 2008 (in press). The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. Oxford University Press: New York, NY. Veblen, T. 1911. The theory of the leisure class. An economic study of institutions. New York: MacMillan. 172.
Etcoff, Nancy. 1999. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Anchor Books.
Wolf, Naomi. 1991. The beauty myth: how images of beauty are used against women. 1st Edition. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
Fretts, R. C., J. Schmittdiel, F. H. McLean, R.H. Usher, and M. B. Goldman. 1995. “Increased Maternal Age and the Risk of Fetal Death.” The New England Journal of Medicine. Volume 333, Issue 15. 15 Oct 1995. Boston: Massachusetts Medical Society. 953-957.
Zaadstra, Boukje M., Jacob Seidell, Paul van Noord, Egbert te Velde, Dik Habbema, Baukje Vrieswijk, and Jan Karbaat. 1993. “Fat and female fecundity: Prospective study of effect of body fat distribution on conception rates.” British Medical Journal. Vol. 306, Issue 6876. Feb 1993: 484-48.
The Family Herald. 1996. March 4, 1848:700. Qtd. in Farrar, Peter. Tight Lacing: A Bibliography of Articles and Letters Concerning Stays and Corsets for Men and Women. Liverpool: Karn Publications Garston. 6. Hatfield, Elaine, and Susan Sprecher. 1986. Mirror, Mirror: The Importance of Looks in Everyday Life. Albany: State University of New York Press. Kenrick, Douglas, and R. C. Keefe. 1992. “Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in reproductive strategies.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Volume 15, Issue 1. March 1992. New York: Cambridge University Press. Leighton, John. 1874. Madre natura versus the Moloch of fashion, a social essay, by Luke Limner. Fourth Edition. London: Chatto and Windus, Piccadilly. Montaigne, Michel de. 1575. Essays. Book 1, Chpt. 14. From The Complete Works of Montaigne. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1948. “One hundred years ago: The hygienic reform of female clothing.” British Medial Journal. 1903. Issue ii: 1003. Reprinted in British Medical Journal, Volume 327, Nov. 2003. Perrett, D. I., K. J. Lee, I. Penton-Voak, D. Rowland, S. Yoshikawa, D. M. Burt, S. P. Henzi, D. L. Castles, and S. Akamatsu. 1998. “Effects of sexual dimorphism on facial attractiveness.” Nature. Volume 394, Issue 6696. 27 August 1998. London: MacMillan Magazines Ltd. 884-887. Pinker, Stephen. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. Riordan, Teresa. 2004. Inventing beauty: A history of the innovations that have made us beautiful. New York: Broadway Books. Rudofsy, B. 1972. The unfashionable human body. London: Ruper Hart-Davis. Singh, Devendra. 1993. “Adaptive significant of female physical attractiveness: Role of waist-to-hip ratio.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Volume 65. 293-307.
9 Noah Hoch’s essay was awarded the 2008 Lawrence Lader Prize in Expository Writing
Gothicism and Madness: Where Reality and Consciousness Intersect n their introduction to The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction, Patrick McGrath and Bradford Morrow outline the evolution of the gothic genre. They explain that traditional gothic fiction “was known by the props and settings it employed, by its furniture” (xi). “Dark forests and dripping cellars, ruined abbeys riddled with secret passages, clanking chains, skeletons, thunderstorms, and moonlight” were the staples of the gothic until Edgar Allan Poe “[shifted] the emphasis away from all this gloomy hard-ward and [became] increasingly fascinated with the psyche of the gothic personality” (xi). Poe reimagined the gothic as a fusion of its props and “the depths of spiritual derangement” (xii), such that it would be impossible to separate the external environment from the interior state it mirrors. In this conception, the gothic retains its frightening and dark accoutrements, but reconstructs them with greater weight as a symbol of psychic turmoil. Poe set gothic on this path, paving a spectrum that now ends with what McGrath and Morrow call “the new gothic.” Beginning with the “spiritual and emotional breakdown” (xii) of the character, the new gothic is ground-up rather than top-down. The furniture does not engender the emotional bleakness of its characters; instead, characters engender the emotional bleakness of their furniture. In this way, contemporary gothic has freedom to project gothic shadows onto anything. The new gothicists have abstracted the heart of traditional gothicism, the intention to “reveal bleaker facets of the human soul,” but are “no longer shackled to the conventional props of the genre” (xiv). Contemporary gothic has become simply that which projects inner strife upon the outward environment, that which blurs the line between what is real and what is imagined. Herein lies the principal dilemma of Spider, a novel by McGrath and a film adaptation directed by David Cronenberg: to define the line between subjective and objective realities. Spider is the story of a man haunted by severe mental illness and a guilty conscience for an execution he carried out as a child. In each incarnation of Spider, the degree to which his malady affected his decision to commit murder is a crucial and lingering question. The novel provides a seat directly in his mind and therefore inextricably ties his schizophrenic hallucinations to the world that encompasses him. Warped by disease, Spider lacks the capacity to discern the real world from his mind’s creations, which are at all times intimidating and full of images of the traditional gothic. Since he tells the story, these images are passed onto us, unfiltered. Conversely, the film, a story about him rather than one seen through his eyes, constructs a world evocative of the distance and loneliness suffered by a sick man, concerned with his plight, but always removed from the mental machinery that entangles reality and imagination. Contemporary gothicism is the means to that end, demonstrating the consequences of his mind on his environment but subtly enough as to not undermine our ability to objectively judge the narrative’s reliability. The use of two varied gothics has the effect of directing urgency toward different elements of the title character’s conflict—the novel’s entrenchment in traditional
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gothic furniture emphasizes his schizophrenia while the film’s more abstract gothic interpretation exposes his childhood trauma. The novel is inescapably tied to a schizophrenic storyteller and therefore his hallucinations confront us, while the film’s more ambiguous point of view exhibits a troubled man coming to terms with the haunting past. Nicknamed Spider, Dennis Cleg is a man plagued by schizophrenia, returning to his home city of London after spending twenThe use of two varied ty years in a mental institution for killing his mother. Both the novel the film invite their audiences to gothics has the effect of and bear witness as Dennis revisits his memories of the events that led up directing urgency toward to his mother’s murder. However, because of his mental illness, each different elements of the medium cautions us to remain skeptical and critical of Dennis’ title character’s conflict— retelling, for surely the memories of a schizophrenic man from a schizothe novel’s entrenchment phrenic childhood cannot maintain much accuracy. In the novel, Dennis warns that “events that happened in traditional gothic yesterday are blurred, and [he has] no confidence in [his] ability to furniture emphasizes his remember them accurately at all” (9), but as his narration progresses it schizophrenia while the becomes apparent that his memories of the past are not to be trusted film’s more abstract gothic either. Similarly, in the film, shots of Dennis scribbling erratically and indecipherably in his notebook interpretation exposes convey the untrustworthiness of the subsequent flashbacks. While his childhood trauma. problematic enough, Dennis’ schizophrenia constitutes only part of his conflict: as a child, when he began to mature, sexual feelings for his mother emerged at the same time as she and his father were attempting to reconcile their failing marriage. As a result, he developed a complicated perception of his mother and an animosity towards his father. The intersection of these two conflicts—that of his mind and that of his family—results in Dennis’ construction of two identities for his mother: one a “tart” (27), who he believes is named Hilda in the novel and Yvonne in the film, and the other a caring, nurturing protector whom he loves. As his mother demonstrates more affection for his father—a man Dennis fears and despises—he perceives that the
mother he knew and loved has been lost, replaced by the tart. This metaphorical death takes on a greater significance as Dennis imagines that his father and the tart murdered his mother. To avenge his mother’s death, Dennis devises a plan to kill the person he feels is responsible. The film and the novel differ in whom they suggest he targets, but the end result does not change: Dennis’ mother dies. At the core of this story are two conflicts: a young boy’s emerging sexuality versus his parents’ dysfunction (the familial), and his schizophrenia versus reality (the mental). Both play a role in motivating him to kill a culprit in his mother’s disappearance. However, whereas the novel emphasizes the weight of schizophrenia in his action, the film emphasizes his familial conflict. And, it is because of the different gothic lenses that these two versions of the same story are capable of such radically different narrative focuses. The novel’s heavy gothic overtones can make the film seem ungothic in comparison. But in fact, the traditional gothic qualities of the novel can elucidate the basic principals that also apply to the film. Though not traditional in the earliest sense of the genre, the novel fits more along the lines of the gothic that Poe helped to mold—one still concerned with scenery but where that scenery is modernized. It is traditional in the sense that the furniture is still dark and gloomy, but whereas the earliest gothic would present a dripping cellar or clanking chains, the novel gives an attic, filled with nothing but “the trunks and suitcases of Mrs. Wilkinson’s tenants” yet still noisy enough to hamper Spider from getting “a good night’s sleep” (10–11). Instead of the intimidating spires of a castle against a black night, it is the “gasworks hulking against the gloomy sky” (12) that strike terror into Spider’s heart. Furthermore, abiding to the gothic rule, each element of the scenery that Spider notes relates to his inner turmoil. The ghosts of the attic that clunk around and keep Spider from his sleep are the ghosts of his past and imagination literally looming over his head—a manifestation possible because of the severity of Spider’s schizophrenia. The gasworks evoke not only the image of his father, a plumber by profession and therefore intimately associated with pipes, decay, and waste but also the memory of using gas in an attempt to kill his father as a child.
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The resentment he holds for his father and the guilt he has for instead killing his mother weighs on his consciousness and amplifies the already menacing “dozen uprights arranged in a circle and girdled at the top with a hoop of steel” (12). As Spider’s mental stability plunges, so too does his environment become more hostile and frightening, underscoring how difficult it has become to distinguish his furniture from what it metaphorically represents. In fact, so indistinguishable does the line between imagination and reality become that his twisted vision suddenly turns inward and his focus moves from the “dark poky little slum houses all crammed together with narrow yards” (12) to his small intestine, “wrapped tightly around the lower part of [his] spine” (175). In the novel, the effect of Spider’s mind on his life’s objective reality elicits these dark and twisted images that hark back to the traditional gothic. Because the novel seats the reader in Spider’s mind, without an objective interpreter, the audience is privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings and necessarily these exaggerated images surface without distinction from reality. This is gothicism at its essence. Despite their prevalence in the novel, in the film there are no images of Spider’s small intestine, no noises from the attic, no worm in his lung, no organs infested with spiders—essentially none of the explicit images of a mind “crippled with distortions of perception and moral sense, and obsessed with death and morbidity” (McGrath & Morrow xi). In fact, while the movie does employ a few lighting tricks, some unusual camera angles, and creative casting choices (Miranda Richardson plays Mrs. Cleg, Yvonne, and, briefly, Mrs. Wilkinson), hardly any of the profilmic space offers evidence as unambiguous as the decaying intestines of Spider’s mental instability. The absence of this furniture can easily lead to an interpretation of the film that overlooks its gothic nature. Where are the skeletons and thunderstorms? The hallmark “chthonic, claustrophic spaces” (xiii)? Indeed, many scenes from the movie are shot with a wide frame of deep space and focus, creating vast and empty images thereby completely disowning the “staples of the early gothicists” (xiii). However, if examined more closely and with McGrath and Morrow’s assertion that gothicism is simply that which “[intends] to reveal bleaker facets of the human soul” (xiv), then those lighting tricks, unusual
camera angles, and creative casting choices more than satisfy the gothic genre. For example, while scribbling furiously in his notebook, Dennis is spotlighted such that the corners of the frame are dark and the mise-en-scène lost, thereby emphasizing his isolation and alienation during this intimate moment where an otherwise introverted and shy man grasps at the wispy memories of his past, trying to capture them on paper. Besides exemplifying the film’s gothic nature, the view of Spider As Spider’s mental stabilijournaling also exemplifies an important contrast in narration ty plunges, so too does between the novel and film. It is imperative to understand that the his environment become two versions differ in point of view and that their differences in gothic style arise from there. The novel, more hostile and frightennarrated by Spider, is a portrayal of ing, underscoring how the world by a schizophrenic as opposed to the subjective observer vantage of the film that is a portray- difficult it has become to al of the world of a schizophrenic. The film, uncoupled from Spider’s distinguish his furniture mind, works to project his fear, detachment, and general mental instability without the task of illus- from what it metaphoricaltrating the more traditional gothic ly represents. thoughts found in the novel. Effectively, the novel provides many images characteristic of the traditional gothic whereas the film concerns itself only with his emotions. The novel’s attachment to Spider’s mind has the effect of forcing us to question elements we otherwise would have believed. Because Spider dictates the novel, his inability to separate reality from imagination becomes our inability to separate reality from imagination. Because Spider’s narrative lacks an awareness of what is and what is not real, it becomes our responsibility to discriminate. Because Spider lacks this critical self-awareness and we are left alone to decipher his reality, we are effectively distanced from him. Since he does not participate in the process of evaluating his perceptions, we cannot empathize with him because he is of the mentally ill while we are of the sound minded. At most we can only pity or sympathize with his condition. We cannot relate to it. Therefore, our attention and energy are spent on his mental illness and decrypting his chronicle, rather than
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on the issues of his family: a brutish, alcoholic father, a struggling mother, and their troubled marriage. Admittedly, the novel devotes itself to Spider’s attempts at salvaging his fractured memories of his family and therefore communicates on one level the seriousness of his family’s dysfunction, providing a basis for empathy towards this element of his story. However, the gothic images produced by his schizophrenia contend with the validity The unusually wide of his familial conflict and erode the foundation for empathy. One could argue that the schizcamera angle and the ophrenic qualities of his thoughts are separate from those about his distorted depth of the family. Certainly it is easy to point to his assumptions about his rotting set’s planes inform innards (175) and other blatantly impossible observations and assign the interpretation them to his imagination, but these morbid images function to highlight that this scene is the unreliability of all his thoughts. While less outrageous, Spider’s memories and descriptions of Hilda, highly constructed. the tart who replaces his mother, still emanate from the same troubled mind as the twisted intestine and therefore deserve the same skepticism. Because there is reason to question something as concrete as Hilda’s existence, then there too is reason to question something as easily manipulated as the perception of his parents. In fact, if understood as a metaphor, Hilda’s materialization in the novel is hardly coincidental. From what Spider reveals, there appears to be a considerable amount of tension between his father and mother before he notices his father with a woman who behaves more wantonly than he perceives his mother to. Spider’s first mention of Hilda comes just after he explains that “[o]n Saturday nights [his] mother and father always went to the pub together” (26). Presumably, Spider’s parents partake in this ritual to address his mother’s concerns that his father spends too much time away from home at the bar—a concern evidenced by a tense dinner conversation in which his mother, without making eye contact, predicts contemptuously that her husband’s rise from the table means that he’s “[o]ff down the pub” (23). Although he does not mention it, conceivably Spider could have followed his parents to the pub and witnessed his mother acting promiscuously. To assume
that Spider followed his parents to the pub as a child is not unjustified, for there are several events that Spider details that he could not possibly have known unless he completely fabricated them or followed his parents around. Either way, when Spider explains that “the image [his father] constructs of Hilda that night is assembled from the gleanings of a series of furtive, short-sighted glances” (27), we cannot help but question if this is in fact the process by which Spider constructs an alter ego for his mother to account for her erratic behavior. By this deduction, it becomes clear that a mind capable of vividly illustrating rotting organs is equally capable of constructing two identities in order to cope with a complicated perception of a woman—a woman who is at once the object of sexual impulses and desperately attempting to salvage her marriage by complying with her husband’s desires. In contrast, the movie narrates from the vantage of a subjective observer, allowing the audience, as observers, to maintain an objective sense of reality, separate from the one that Spider experiences, yet still giving a subjective insight into those dark recesses of his mind. The differences between this narrative style and that of the novel are exemplified in their portrayals of the scene in which Spider’s father kills his mother. In the novel, Spider does not actually detail his father hitting his mother with the shovel, but the description of his father “in shirtsleeves and flat cap digging a hole in the middle of his potato patch” (77) deep enough for a “bundle partially wrapped in a bloodstained sack” (78) urges the implication. Specific details about that night, how it was “foggy out there, but not foggy enough to obscure the pitted, knobbly lump of the moon” (78), substantiate and give credibility to this retelling, with only the exaggerated, gothic imagery of the moon standing to suggest this event never happened but is rather a figment of Spider’s mind. The movie, on the other hand, captures his mother walking in on his father with the tart and the ensuing spade attack. Then, a cut to his father digging the hole in the potato patch frames him with his shack in the background, the tart leaning against it and the adult Spider off to the side. The unusually wide camera angle and the distorted depth of the set’s planes inform the interpretation that this scene is
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highly constructed. It evokes the same perspective of sets in theaters—the stage is wide and open yet the audience is acutely aware of its unrealistic shallowness, thus allowing the audience to see what Spider believes is reality but in such a way to also be objective and understand its unreliability. In the film, this event is therefore more plainly an unconscious construction than it is in the novel. These two presentations of Spider’s story offer two very distinct experiences: one where the audience cannot extract itself from the narrator’s mind, and is inundated with a catalog of schizophrenic symptoms, and one where the audience bears witness to a sick man trying desperately to make sense of his fragmented memories. In the former experience, the onslaught of traditional gothic imagery emphasizes Spider’s mental conflict, drowning the potential to trust—and therefore empathize with —the seriousness of his parents’ marital struggles. In the latter experience, the modern gothic style strips away much of this furniture, thus exposing a man disarmingly troubled by the memories of a broken home. Although the film and novel unfold essentially the same sequence of events, the film’s dearth of traditional gothic imagery excuses us from questioning the reliability of his familial conflict, thereby allowing us to identify with Spider in a way the novel does not. In addition to this choice not to convey these traditional gothic images, the film employs other techniques geared toward defining the separation of reality and imagination in order to admit its uncertainty. As previously mentioned, both versions confess early on that memory is fallible. By recognizing this universally understood concept, each attempts to persuade us of its trustworthiness. However, the novel’s perpetuation of undisputed gothic imagery betrays our trust while the film reinforces it. For instance, as exemplified in the scene of Spider’s mother’s death, the transparency of Spider’s flashbacks— that they are constructions—assures us of a clear distinction between fact and fiction.
Similarly, the film physically presents Spider’s mother and the tart so that we may judge the reality of the situation, whereas in the book we have only his unreliable descriptions of these two women. The creative choice to dual cast Miranda Richardson operates as a visual reminder that Spider has fabricated Yvonne (Hilda’s cinematic counterpart), that she is a caricaturized version of his mother. The application of such visual cues effectively demonstrates that Spider has a sickness without betraying our trust in the narrative. The film openly communicates that certain aspects of Spider’s perception are not to be trusted, implying that when other elements do not possess unusual cinematic techniques they can be trusted. The novel’s graphic gothic images and lack of delineation between reality and imagination act like layers of shirts, padding Spider’s frail frame against an understanding of his familial conflict. The film strips Spider of these many layers and leaves exposed and vulnerable those issues of his family. In one scene, Spider remembers from his childhood watching out a window as his father aggressively fondles and kisses his mother on their way to the pub. A point of view shot, from the window down onto the street, catches his mother’s awkward glance. Her eyes, full of apology and humiliation, look directly from the screen into the audience. This perspective, shared between Spider and the audience, elevates an understanding of the image’s emotional impact. Here is his mother: simultaneously eroticized and victimized. This shot does not distort depth, it does not light irregularly, and it does not mislead with creative casting. Everybody is who they appear to be. Of course, the deep shot from a high angle with dark lighting that casts heavy shadows is a directorial choice emphasizing Spider’s feelings of estrangement and disheartenment, but the result is not unnatural like the flatness of the potato patch burial scene or the spotlight of the journal scribbling scene. The juxtaposition of realistic and unrealistic techniques separates those moments of Spider’s experiences influenced by his schizophrenia
George Bellows, Dance in a Mad House. 1917. Lithograph. Library of Congress, LC-USZ62108602.
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from those that are universal. Regardless of his illness, it is understandable that a boy so young, impressionable, and naïve would be confused by the onerous notions of his mother and would engage any possible mechanism to cope. The ability to understand Spider’s conflict independent of his mental condition assists in developing and solidifying a foundation for empathy. Through this frame, the film elicits stronger identification and therefore empathy with Spider so that we evaluate the consequences of a couple’s marital problems on their child. The novel, on the other hand, does not encourage such attachment and instead paints Spider to prompt sympathy or pity for his schizophrenia. The film does not report the intense schizophrenic hallucinations present in the novel so that the only symptoms of which we are aware seem hardly disconcerting. Shyness, quiet mumbling, and paranoia do not incite as much apprehension as a person who imagines his intestines spiral up his backbone. The novel is not concerned whether or not Spider’s familial dysfunction exists. The point is that Spider believes it to be true. Herein lies the tragedy: Spider’s schizophrenia distorts all aspects of his life such that everything becomes a nightmare. The film however, detaches us from Spider’s mental illness, instead using it to amplify the effects of his parents’ marital feuding. The product of these fundamental differences steeped in variant gothic techniques helps to elucidate the reasons why the two media suggest he had different targets in his murderous plot as a child. In both narratives, Spider remembers that as a child he devised a contraption to asphyxiate someone by leaking the gas stove in the kitchen. In the novel, Spider remembers that one night, after having completed the contraption and being prepared to use it, “Hilda came up first, [his] father close behind her,” suggesting that because “he would not pass out in his chair by the stove tonight,” Spider delayed carrying out his attack for another night when his father, his true target, would be in the proper position (194). In contrast, the film encourages the notion that Yvonne is his target through a series of shots showing young Spider first hearing his father climb the stairs and then witnessing Yvonne stumble from the outhouse into the kitchen before pulling a string to release the gas. If seen as metaphors, where Yvonne represents the charge that has disrupted Spider’s
family and his father represents the conductor that attracts her, it becomes clear that, in the novel, Spider’s fundamental conflict is his mental illness and in the film it is his family. If Spider’s central conflict were the dissolution of his family, he would desire to neutralize the charge that caused it and thus in the film he targets Yvonne. If he were so insane as to be unconcerned with his family’s stability, he would target his father and such is the case in the novel. Each version of Spider portrays a man with a mental illness struggling with fractured memories of his childhood, but each version does not present the events of his life in the same light. With traditional gothic imagery, the novel casts a shadow over Spider’s entire story, at all times obscuring the truth but always appealing for sympathy toward a man unable to escape the darkness of his mind. The less stringent requirements of the modern gothic give the film freedom to shed light upon his familial conflict, protecting it from the shadows of his disturbed mind and providing an opportunity to empathize with this universal condition. These disparate gothic techniques encourage fundamentally different understandings of Spider. If overlooked, the novel’s commentary on the horrifying nature of schizophrenia may fail to be appreciated, and the film’s exposition of childhood trauma goes unnoticed. In a broader perspective, the spectrum of gothic techniques mirrors the spectrum of fear in Spider’s life. There are torrential waves of fear that crash against him from the outside, rocking him to his core. Then there are demons that shake him from within, crippling his view of the world from the inside, like looking out to the world through broken glass. And so, if the two versions of this tale have anything to say about what hope there is for handling these different kinds of fear, then it is to be found in their endings. The novel ends abruptly as Spider ventures into the haunting attic, suggesting that a world twisted and darkened by a fractured mind has no resolution, no hope. In contrast, the film gives us Spider being taken back to the hospital, paralleling his departure twenty years earlier after killing his mother. Maybe this hints that the only hope for Spider, whose torment came from the familial world outside, is an inescapable cycle between the world and the hospital—a bleak future to be sure, but a future
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nonetheless. For Spider, it is then paradoxical that in the traditional gothic, the kind more concerned about the external furniture, there is no hope for separation between Spider and his inner torment, and in the modern gothic, the kind more focused on the internal world, there is a bit of light between that which terrorizes him and his mind. Either way, such grim finales prove that Spider is truly gothic.
Works Cited McGrath, Patrick. Spider. 1st Vintage Contemporaries ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Morrow, Bradford, and Patrick McGrath. The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction. New York: Random House, 1991. Spider. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Ralph Fiennes. DVD. Sony Pictures Classics, 2003.
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The Farmer and the Scavenger t first glance, Henry David Thoreau and Chris McCandless appear to be kindred spirits. Both the Transcendentalist philosopher who settled at Walden Pond and the young man who hitchhiked by himself to Alaska spent two years in the wilderness attempting to reduce life to its bare essentials. Both celibates shunned materialism and “the enticements of the flesh” (Krakauer 66). Like McCandless’s “monkish” apartment in Atlanta—which, according to reporter Jon Krakauer, was furnished with little more than a mattress on the floor—Thoreau’s cabin contained a bed, a desk, and a chair (22). McCandless saw himself in Thoreau: while in Alaska, he studied Walden and marked and annotated his favorite passages. His celebration of “Deliberate Living” in the few back pages of a book that served as his journal echoes Thoreau’s own words: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived” (Thoreau 72). McCandless took the last portion of that declaration seriously: he feared that if he did not grasp his dream to “ ‘live amongst the wild,’ ” his life would not have been worth living in the first place (Krakauer 69). However, the extreme pursuit of this dream brings him to his ruin. While McCandless severs himself completely from human society, discarding his given name and attempting to live among wild animals, Thoreau holds no illusions about what species to which he belongs. Both grammatically Reciprocating the land’s dependable growth with sustained diligence, Thoreau takes control of a portion of his environment by establishing his own bean-field in an ode to agriculture. McCandless, on the other hand, does not try to contribute to the and literally, Thoreau is sustainable land or establish a permanent place for himself. As he hunts, scavenges, and chases after the winding tracks of both game and writers in search of sustenance, he fails to establish the agent performing control over his fate and starves to death, poisoned by the environment that was supposed to detoxify him. the sowing. Not only While McCandless scavenges but does not attempt to cultivate the Alaskan turf, Thoreau nurtures the land at Walden Pond, coaxing it into following his command. In a is he surviving on his chapter devoted entirely to “The Bean-Field,” Thoreau writes: “Removing the weeds, putting fresh soil about the bean stems, and encouraging this weed which I had sown, own in the forest—he making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms rather than in wormwood and piper and millet grass, making the earth say beans instead of grass—this was my daily work” (124). With his sustained use of active participles, has taken control of Thoreau emphasizes that he is “making” the earth do as he wishes. Although replacing one form of weed with another seems insignificant on the surface, he is nonetheless takhis environment. ing possession of his patch of earth with the first person “I”: “encouraging this weed
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which I have sown […] was my daily work” (124). Both grammatically and literally, Thoreau is the agent performing the sowing. Not only is he surviving on his own in the forest—he has taken control of his environment. Where wild grass once grew, Thoreau has tamed the land and cultivated a sustainable garden. But first, Thoreau must nurture the beans with regular care and diligence for the land to respond to him with reciprocal growth. In the very first paragraph of “The Bean-field,” Thoreau declares his purpose: “This was my curious labour all summer—to make this portion of the earth’s surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse. What shall I
an “intimate” relationship with the beans and the land, Thoreau mimics the regularity of the seasons with daily attention to his bean-field (124). He rises before dawn to hoe the beans from five in the morning till noon (128), and even after his task is done, “early and late [he has] an eye to them” (123). By taking care of his beans with mathematical regularity, Thoreau reinforces “presence and influence” over his surroundings at Walden Pond. By providing sustained diligence for his sustainable beanfield, Thoreau has fashioned for himself a sustainable lifestyle. While Thoreau settles down at Walden Pond by building a cabin and growing a beanfield, Chris McCandless eschews settlement in favor of hunting and gathering. While it would River and Mountain Scene. 1920. Photograph from the Frank and Frances Carpenter collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIGppmsc-01670.
learn of beans or beans of me? I cherish them, I hoe them, early and late I have an eye to them; and this is my day’s work” (123). Thoreau’s double entendre with the word “pulse” is particularly telling. The earth to him is not just alive—it is a beating heart, and every season a heartbeat. Every summer, presumably without fail, the land produces “cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like” (123). In order to build
have been more challenging for McCandless to live off a garden in Alaska than for Thoreau to do so at Walden Pond, the abundance of foliage and wild roots and berries in the area suggests that McCandless could have cultivated something. Even though it seems plausible that McCandless might have considered planting his own garden before venturing to Alaska, Krakauer finds no evidence of a garden in the
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vicinity of the abandoned bus where McCandless would sleep (190). Wayne Westerberg, McCandless’s former boss on a farm in South Dakota, recalls that his energetic employee may have purchased “some potato seeds, with which he intended to plant a vegetable garden after getting established in the bush” (Krakauer 190). The idea of “getting established” implies permanence— like a family establishing itself in a McCandless’s steps are town. If Westerberg’s account is true, then McCandless did consider guided not by a regular settling down in his new environment. By buying potato seeds just as routine like Thoreau’s, but Thoreau bought bean seeds, McCandless could have designed his own sustainable garden. But despite by the unsteady step his tentative steps toward establishing a settlement in the Alaskan of animals whose tracks mountains, ultimately he chooses not to cultivate the land—leaving disappear below the his own position all the more vulnerable. Rather than build a relaearth and snow. tionship with his environment, McCandless instead exploits the land by plucking berries and killing game. So, when game is scarce and his body begins to show the effects of living sporadically for months off the lean meat of birds and squirrels, McCandless is forced to meet his fate. Indeed, McCandless is working to cut himself off from humanity altogether—not only by choosing not to leave his influence on the earth, but by setting off without basic supplies: human tools like a topographical map, a compass, a large-caliber rifle, an axe, or writing paper (Krakauer 180). When he arrives at a stranded bus in the Alaskan wilderness, the “exultant declaration of independence” he scrawls on the plywood of a broken window reveals his desire to completely separate himself from “ ‘civilization’ ”—that is, any place where he must interact with other human beings: ‘Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. […] The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. […] No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.’ (Krakauer 163)
McCandless’s clipped sentence fragments present a stark contrast to Thoreau’s sentences, which are more developed. Rather than establish control over his sentences with subordinate causes, McCandless instead throws in periods after every thought. There is no overriding order, no agent establishing authority. As I suggested earlier, Thoreau builds up several active participles to lead up to “I,” the bean-field’s ultimate agent. In McCandless’s declaration, however, there is no “I” at all—only a distant “he.” Except in one case, the verbs are not action-oriented at all: McCandless “walks” and “flees.” His use of intransitive verbs highlights the fact that he is not “making” the earth do anything (Thoreau 124). He has fled into the wild “to kill the false being within”—but little does he know that without an active plan, he is soon to endanger the most basic premise of that being: his existence. As McCandless unsuccessfully scavenges after game and seeds, it becomes clear that his new lifestyle of hunting and gathering is unable to sustain him because there is no regular or dependable outcome. Unfamiliar with hunting, McCandless naively believes that a few days of skimming books at the University of Alaska’s library—his final flirtation with human society—will compensate for his lack of cumulative experience. As a result, time after time again, McCandless is forced to go for days without eating, simply because he cannot kill any game (Krakauer 164). “It was slow going,” Krakauer writes of McCandless’s attempts to hunt. “In order to feed himself, he had to devote a large part of each day to stalking animals” (164– 165). Krakauer’s use of the word “stalking” highlights the amateur hunter’s lack of control. McCandless’s steps are guided not by a regular routine like Thoreau’s, but by the unsteady step of animals whose tracks disappear below the earth and snow. Inherently, a hunter does not seek a reciprocal relationship with his game—in return for sustenance, he offers bullets and death. So, when McCandless finds meat almost impossible to obtain, he becomes unable to sustain himself without a regular supply of food. While Thoreau’s summer hums with the productivity of tilling, McCandless’s summer days slip by as the wanderer deteriorates into a ghost of a man. In the same vein, McCandless scavenges after the writings of others in search of thoughts
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to sustain him in his endeavor—but ultimately, he fails to reciprocate those thoughts with writing of equal depth. After his “declaration of independence,” the clipped writing style he employs in his journal owes itself, at least in part, to his failure to pack writing paper before setting out for the Alaskan mountains (Krakauer 162). His entries are short snippets of thought in stark contrast to Thoreau’s patient paragraphs: “ ‘Remove heart and other lung. […] Haul near cave’ ” (Krakauer 167). While Thoreau’s eloquent reflections in Walden purposefully wind and turn, McCandless finds himself reduced to annotating others’ writing in the margins (Krakauer 162). By highlighting the passages that resonate with him, he is literally walking in the steps of the authors whose words he is stalking for spiritual sustenance. In turn, his homage to these writers reflects the impossibility of his endeavor to sever himself from humanity. Ultimately, his writing is uncommunicative. His goal is no longer to write a book about “ ‘his last big adventure’ ”—now, it is simply to survive (Krakauer 66). Failing to move beyond the pages of others—either with action or his own thoughtful writing—McCandless is setting himself up to vanish behind others’ words. When he reads a passage from Doctor Zhivago about Lara relishing nature, he writes, “NATURE/PURITY”— the obvious theme of the passage—at the top of the page (Krakauer 189). Often, McCandless does not even bother annotating at all; highlighting and starring a passage suffices, as with “Family Happiness” by Leo Tolstoy. The conclusions that McCandless arrives upon tend to state the obvious and fail to move beyond the page—perhaps because he is not attempting to produce anything of his own at all. Unlike Thoreau, whose essays directly engage with society, McCandless is almost trying to disappear behind Tolstoy’s words. Rather than write a book himself, as he once may have liked—and as Thoreau did—someone else writes a book about him, where his friends, acquaintances, and Krakauer himself strive to define McCandless in his stead. The story does not have the ending he would have written if he had been the author of his fate—but by failing to establish control over his environment, he also fails to establish control over his destiny. In the one time that McCandless does make a definitive decision in the wild to take action—
when he comes to the conclusion that the meaning of life is to “ ‘live for others,’ ”—his attempt to return to human society is aborted by a lack of familiarity with his surroundings (Tolstoy, qtd. in Krakauer 169). When he tries to re-cross the river he once passed through so easily, he finds that the former stream is now unrecognizable: it is “at full flood, swollen with rain and snowmelt from glaciers high in the Alaska Range, running cold and fast” (Krakauer 170). The “full flood” of the river is overwhelming, reflecting McCandless’s complete lack of control over his environment. Unaware that the former stream would expand into such a monster—and His goal is no longer unaware that there are more crossable streams farther down the to write a book river—McCandless finds himself unable to overcome the wilderness. about “ ‘his last big Metaphorically and literally without a map, he is seeking to escape and yet trapped in the wild he once adventure’ ”—now, longed for. As McCandless comes to realize it is simply to survive that the way he is living—as a hunter and gatherer—is not neces- (Krakauer 66). sarily compatible with survival, his quest to become “lost in the wild” soon culminates in becoming “ ‘trapped in the wild’ ” (Krakauer 195). He writes a desperate, comparatively long entry on the hundredth day of his stay: “ ‘BUT IN WEAKEST CONDITION OF LIFE. DEATH LOOMS AS SERIOUS THREAT. TOO WEAK TO WALK OUT, HAVE LITERALLY BECOME TRAPPED IN THE WILD.—NO GAME’ ” (195). His use of the word “ ‘game’ ” unveils a poignant double meaning. On the one hand, there is no game left for him to hunt: McCandless must either find plants off which to subsist, or perish. On the other hand, his stay in Alaska is no longer a game anymore. To an extent, McCandless’s escape to the wild was a childish attempt to prove that he could survive on his own (Krakauer 159). But now, McCandless realizes that this is no game anymore—he cannot depend on exploiting the land without facing the consequences. Now that McCandless has received his wish, he realizes that the reality of being lost in the wild is not nearly as beautiful as the concept. Once he is literally lost, he finds that he can no longer escape.
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Ironically, the natural environment that is supposed to save McCandless from what he sees as a toxic human society ends up poisoning him. Krakauer suggests that McCandless—already starving—by chance ate moldy wild potato seeds that cost him his life. The author, meticulously following McCandless’s footsteps, explains, “[t]he body is prevented from turning what it eats into a source of usable energy. If you ingest too much swainsonine, you are bound to starve” (Krakauer 194). The way that McCandless meets his end reflects the way that he approached Alaska in the first place. Just as McCandless fails to One might go so far as convert the food he ingests after the poisoning into “usable energy,” simto say that Thoreau’s ilarly he fails to convert the land itself into a sustainable “source of Walden Pond—a usable energy” (Krakauer 194). Refusing to grow his own potato seed garden, he is unable to provide place where he could for himself as long as he chooses not to give back to the land and cultivate experience a reciprocal a continual source of nourishment. Thus, as Thoreau, patiently relationship with growing beans, finds the regularity and inner peace to till the land of his nature—no longer soul, McCandless only encounters more confusion and irregularity. In way, McCandless’s failure sheds exists at all. alight on how difficult it is today to experience the wild as Thoreau did. In his time, Thoreau was lucky enough to settle in pristine country a short train ride away from his hometown. Although he moved to Walden Pond on Independence Day, he did not have to declare complete independence from human society. Over 150 years later, however, land all over America has been cleared and developed to some degree—even farms have become commercialized. One might go so far as to say that Thoreau’s Walden Pond—a place where he could experience a reciprocal relationship with nature—no longer exists at all. Stalking animals in a desperate quest to flee human influence may not have been a choice for McCandless at all, but instead a microcosm of our contemporary relationship to nature. If he had to travel all the way from Atlanta to Alaska to find a wilderness that suited his definition, then a Walden Pond of our own might not be so close to home anymore.
Works Cited Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1996. Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Ed. Christopher Bigsby. London: Everyman, 1995.
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The Tempering Frame: Narrative Technique Within “The Kreutzer Sonata” And “Ariadna” oth “The Kreutzer Sonata,” by Leo Tolstoy, and “Ariadna,” by Anton Chekhov, are frame narratives, tales told by unnamed observers within the story who relate the account of another character. The inner narrator of “The Kreutzer Sonata” is Pozdnyshev, whose harrowing tale of jealousy and sexual morality culminates with the murder of his own wife. Within “Ariadna,” Shamokhin, a man whose relationship with a woman called Ariadna disillusioned him of love and amorous relationships, plays the role of inner narrator. In both stories, the frame narrator is simultaneously audience and performer, listening to the inner narrator’s story, as well as creating a story of their own to tell. For the reader, the true interest and complexity of these stories result from the interplay between these frame narrators and inner narrators. While at first glance Pozdnyshev and Shamokhin seem to be the main players of these stories, the actual, embedded focus is upon the frame narrators at the narrative periphery. The inner narratives are, ultimately, best understood as means to the tales’ larger ends, mere props against which the contrasting perspectives of the frame narrators create narrative tension that leads to rich thematic complexity. The true core of these tales is not the moralizing diatribes of the inner narrators, but instead the seams where the inner narrative meets the larger story. Although the presence of the author’s own personal judgments certainly varies between these two texts—Tolstoy had a clear moral in mind when he wrote his story, while Chekhov’s approach was more neutral, less harshly judgmental—these texts, nonetheless, can be read in much the same way. In both stories, the outer frame narrative serves, via irony and contrast, to temper the inner polemic, to soften the otherwise blunt moral message of the story. The main difference between the two is a matter of extent. Although both authors are subtle in their technique, Chekhov more clearly undercuts the conclusions of Shamokhin, the inner narrator of “Ariadna,” whereas Tolstoy’s critique of Pozdnyshev’s furious confession is slighter, and relies more on implication. While “Ariadna” highlights the instability and one-sidedness of the inner narrator’s argument, “The Kreutzer Sonata” merely alludes to it. This fact points to the wide difference in authorial intent between the two authors—Chekhov consciously strove to illustrate the inner narrator’s fallibility, while Tolstoy’s filtering of the inner story through the frame narrator results from his own unresolved, personal conflict between his role as an artist and as a didactic moralist. The setting of both stories is some sort of vehicle: in “The Kreutzer Sonata” the vehicle is a train, and in “Ariadna,” a steamer. This choice of setting is surely deliberate: because both tales take place on a means of transportation, the frame narrator is thrown into contact with the inner narrator at the beginning of each story’s journey, and stays in contact, held by the inner narrator’s tale, until the end of the journey. The role of the frame narrator immediately emerges, from the moments these narrative companions meet, as a device to soften Pozdnyshev’s and Shamokhin’s narrative authority.
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In “Ariadna,” after becoming acquainted with Shamokhin, the outer narrator comments to the reader that he “could see […] [he] wasn’t going to escape without having to listen to some interminable story, a confession of sorts” (88). Right away the frame narrator uses humor and sarcasm to undercut Shamokhin’s introductory, earnest remarks about Russians’ incessant “talk of higher matters and women” (86). The key word in the frame narrator’s Although the frame remark here is “interminable”—it suggests the dull, monotonous narrators undermine the nature of Shamokhin’s impending tale of his disillusionment in love, and cautions the reader against inner narrators’ credibility adopting Shamokhin’s maudlin outlook. Here the frame narrator underthroughout, they are cuts Shamokhin’s overwrought tale with a bit of light-hearted humor, perhaps most subversive and suggests the exaggerated nature of Shamokhin’s words. In much the same manner, the at the close of the stories. frame narrator of “The Kreutzer Sonata” serves to cast a tempering light on the inner narrator from the very beginning of the tale. The frame narrator’s first descriptions of Pozdnyshev sketch him as a strange man, an oddity who does not fit with his surroundings. The narrator relates that Pozdnyshev “kept himself apart,” and that “his movements were abrupt and his unusually glittering eyes moved rapidly from one object to another”; he then comments that “a peculiarity of this man was a strange sound he emitted, something like a clearing of his throat, or a laugh begun and sharply broken off” (Tolstoy 173). The frame narrator is clearly struck by Pozdnyshev’s essentially psychotic qualities. He then goes on to say of Pozdnyshev, “it seemed to me that his loneliness depressed him […] but whenever our eyes met […] he turned away and took up his book or looked out of the window” (173). Put together, these remarks depict a man who seems far from the sort of person to relate an objective, factually precise, or sound tale. Words and phrases like “abrupt” and “sharply” add to this sense of abnormality, and give an impression of violence or menace. The frame narrator’s description highlights Pozdnyshev’s manifest strangeness, and alludes to his inability to function normally in society. If Pozdnyshev, from the reader’s initial glimpse of him, is not an
apparent madman, then he is at any rate not someone who is to be trusted. Once the journeys—and the inner narrators’ tales—get underway, Chekhov’s frame narrator falls silent for a while, not to speak again until Shamokhin himself finishes his story. Tolstoy’s frame narrator, however, offers comments throughout, which punctuate Pozdnyshev’s narrative and quietly cool the fiery pitch of his words. As a result, while Chekhov’s use of the frame narrative is weighted at the beginning and end of the tale, Tolstoy’s is sprinkled throughout, and therefore gradually accumulates, building up a subtle indictment as the tale goes along. For instance, when Pozdnyshev reaches the part of his tale where he rails against intercourse for its vileness and immorality, the frame narrator questions him, positing, “All the same, […] if everyone thought this [sexual abstinence] the right thing to do, the human race would cease to exist” (Tolstoy 191). The frame narrator’s question at this point prompts Pozdnyshev’s impassioned explanation that the human race “should strive towards continence and not towards inflaming desire” (192). Pozdnyshev swiftly dismisses the frame narrator’s objection, seeing nothing wrong with the extinction of the human race; to him, the immorality of intercourse necessitates abstinence, regardless of its consequences. However, the frame narrator remains strangely silent at the end of this flurry of rationalization on Pozdnyshev’s part—he utters not even the slightest murmur of agreement, and Pozdnyshev just falls back into the forward momentum of his narrative. Although the frame narrator’s questions here may serve a didactic point, as a tactic on Tolstoy’s part to address potential questions he foresaw arising in the minds of his readers, the frame narrator’s ultimate silence and the lack of any signs of agreement with Pozdnyshev’s argument instead create a tension between him and Pozdnyshev. The fact that the frame narrator does not vocally object to Pozdnyshev’s statements indicates the relentless vehemence and unswerving fervor with which Pozdnyshev tells his tale, not a concession of the frame narrator’s defeat. The frame narrator remains silent because Pozdnyshev makes no room for him in his rout. This raises the question of whether Pozdnyshev should be trusted—whether his arguments, after all, should be accepted.
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American Colony (Jerusalem) Photo Department Photographer, Bethlehem and Surroundings. c. 19001920. Photograph from the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-matpc-05493.
Although the frame narrators undermine the inner narrators’ credibility throughout, they are perhaps most subversive at the close of the stories. After Shamokhin has brought his tale to a close, Chekhov’s frame narrator is unwilling to accept Shamokhin’s conclusions about “the backwardness of educated women” (108), and even goes so far as to question them: he asks Shamokhin, “why generalize? Why judge all women by Ariadna alone?” (109). He ultimately comments how Shamokhin is “an impassioned, confirmed misogynist, and it [is] impossible to make him change his mind” (109). Chekhov’s narrator is not able to accept Shamokhin’s conclusions, and instead immediately questions their validity by laying bare Shamokhin’s prejudice. Similarly, once Pozdnyshev finishes his tale, Tolstoy’s frame narrator offers no phrases of agreement or even solace; instead, they “[sit] in
silence for a long while,” and again, after Pozdnyshev adds a final epilogue about his folly, they “[remain] silent for a long time” (Tolstoy 231). Much is conveyed by this silence: it strikes the reader as strange, or perhaps cold, that the the narrator’s actions frame narrator offers no comment at the end of Pozdnyshev’s lengthy, toward Pozdnyshev pathos-ridden tale—and suggests that the frame narrator has not fully accepted Pozdnyshev’s moral argu- at the end of the story ments, or at least is not willing to are indicative more of immediately agree with them. In the case of the sentence “Again [they] [remain] silent for a long time,” this pity than assent impression is lent extra force by the fact that this single sentence stands alone as its own paragraph in the narrative; this protracts the silence, and gives it weight, which further highlights the frame narrator’s inability
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to come to any quick, complete agreement with Pozdnyshev’s views (Tolstoy 231). Perhaps such silence signifies the frame narrator’s struggle to come to any sort of understanding of Pozdnyshev himself, and his psychotic character. In both texts, the questioning of the frame narrator, whether explicit (in In other words, “Ariadna”) or implicit (in “The Kreutzer Sonata”), causes the reader although the frame to step back and reflect on both the inner story’s patent theme, and the serves to undercut more complex theme of questioning subjectivity that lies at the heart of stories. Bit by bit, the quiet the inner narrators both dissent of the frame narrators brings about a gradual transformation of in both stories, mindset on the part of the reader: while originally the reader’s focus is the result in “The solely upon the inner narratives, which ostensibly dominate the tales, Kreutzer Sonata” is the presence of the frame narrators and their commentary shifts the the opposite of the reader’s focus outward, toward the parts of the tales where the frame and inner parts interact. result in “Ariadna.” After the reader perceives that the frame narrator is not in comThat is, the tempering plete, immediate agreement with the inner narrator, aspects of both stoframe acts as an ries can be read in a new light, ultimately revealing the fallibility of the anti-ideological device inner narrators. Perhaps the most subtle and nuanced example of this in “Ariadna” is the penultimate in “The Kreutzer scene, wherein the frame narrator finally meets Ariadna: he says, “she Sonata,” and as an shook my hand very firmly, looked at me with delight and thanked me anti-anti-ideological, in that sugary, singsong voice for the pleasure my writings gave her”; or anti-neutral, device right after this description follows Shamokhin’s comment, “Don’t you believe her […] She hasn’t read a in “Ariadna.” word of yours” (Chekhov 110). However, now that Shamokhin’s validity has been questioned by the frame narrator, whom is the reader to believe? Is Ariadna, after all, being sincere? If the answers to these questions are not explicit, it is nonetheless significant that they arise—the story cautions its readers to take neither Shamokhin, nor Ariadna, for their word.
Similarly, in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” the narrator’s actions toward Pozdnyshev at the end of the story are indicative more of pity than assent: the frame narrator, as he leaves the train at the very end of the story, approaches Pozdnyshev and “[touches] him with [his] hand”—an act of compassion, not an affirmation of the truth in Pozdnyshev’s message (Tolstoy 231). The frame narrator then describes Pozdnyshev as “so [piteous] that [he] felt ready to weep” (231). The fact that the narrator offers no expressions of agreement in this passage shows his ultimate attitude toward Pozdnyshev to be one of commiseration, not like-mindedness or philosophical unity. Finally, the story closes with Pozdnyshev whispering, as much to himself as to the frame narrator, “Yes, forgive me…”; the reader’s parting glimpse of Pozdnyshev is that of a broken man, lying alone on a train in the pale light of dawn—an image of frailty and insecurity (232). Pozdnyshev, through the frame narrator’s eyes, is rendered pitiful and meek to the reader, not a tragic prophet of moral virtue. Such a reading of both stories, taking the frame narrator to undercut the moral content of the inner narrator, is complicated, however, by the issue of authorial intent. While Chekhov probably meant this moral ambiguity to be a major theme—as Carol Flath notes in her discussion of “Ariadna,” “Chekhov’s claims to complete objectivity are well known”—the exact opposite is true of Tolstoy’s work (223). As Tolstoy famously stated in his “Afterword to the Kreutzer Sonata,” he meant his original tale—that is, Pozdnyshev’s straightforward, moralizing narrative—to be taken precisely for its word: the whole intent of the “Afterword” was to dispel any questions regarding his authorial intent within the “The Kreutzer Sonata” itself. Tolstoy wanted to propagate Pozdnyshev’s vision of sexual morality, not challenge it. As Isaiah Berlin states in a study of Tolstoy, “his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another” (24). “The Kreutzer Sonata” is a battleground upon which the reader clearly perceives Tolstoy’s “conflict between what he was and what he believed”: Tolstoy’s dual personae as a writer—on the one hand, he strives to impart a single, unambiguous moral truth with his story, while at the same time his multifariously
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creative tendencies get in the way—clash heroically in this story (Berlin 24). Ultimately, though, Tolstoy was unable to completely suppress his inclinations to provide the nuances and complexity of thought that are at the heart of literature. This interpretation of the frame narrator as a counterpoint to the inner narrator’s validity, then, is not precluded by Tolstoy’s thematic intent as an author, as the tension between inner and frame narrator ultimately lays bare the tension within Tolstoy himself—between Tolstoy the author and artist, on the one hand, and Tolstoy the polemicist and didact, on the other. The tempering nature of the frame narrator in “The Kreutzer Sonata” ultimately serves the purpose of muting Pozdnyshev’s heavy-handed denunciation of marriage and sexuality. On the other hand, the tempering nature of the frame narrator in “Ariadna” not only destabilizes Shamokhin’s argument but, in a subtle, paradoxical way, challenges Chekhov’s own image of authorial neutrality. In other words, although the frame serves to undercut the inner narrators in both stories, the result in “The Kreutzer Sonata” is the opposite of the result in “Ariadna.” That is, the tempering frame acts as an anti-ideological device in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” and as an anti-anti-ideological, or antineutral, device in “Ariadna.” In particular, while the questioning of Shamokhin’s diatribe in “Ariadna” does highlight Chekhov’s distaste for one-sided adherence to ideas, a distinction must be made here between objectivity and authorial intent: while Chekhov is, without a doubt, an author who values objectivity, he nonetheless has some intent, some overall goal, in mind when he writes. In this way, the usage of frame narrators to question the validity of the inner narrative illumines the fact that both “The Kreutzer Sonata” and “Ariadna” are more complex than heavy-handed moralizing on the one hand, or dispassionate, indifferent neutrality on the other. In essence, the frame narrator adds a layer of contrapuntal complexity to the inner narrator’s story, thereby cautioning the reader against taking any narrator, or anyone, at their word, and encouraging a closer look at what lies unsaid, or merely implied, at the periphery. Here in the half-light, in the shadowed frame where the reader meets the pathos of the inner tale, one perspective weaves into another to blur the tales’ internal sharp-edged fury.
Works Cited Berlin, Isaiah. “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Russian Thinkers. Eds. Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly. Penguin, 1979. 22-24, 51-52. Chekhov, Anton. “Ariadna.” Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895. Trans. Ronald Wilks. Penguin, 2002. 86-111. Flath, Carol. “Writing about Nothing: Chekhov’s ‘Ariadna’ and the Narcissistic Narrator.” Slavic and East European Review 77.2 (1999): 223-239. Tolstoy, Leo. “The Kreutzer Sonata.” Tolstoy’s Short Fiction. Trans., Ed. Michael R. Katz. New York: Norton, 1991. 172-232.
26 Exposé 2007–2008
Peasants in Paradise: A Struggle For Power s 1959 began, Fidel Castro and his rebel forces muscled into Havana with hardly a whimper of opposition. President Batista, panicky and realizing the fight was over, had fled the country mere days before.1 The Cuban revolution, long-fought, was triumphant and successful. The socialist experiment that Cuba would continue to this present day was about to begin, and Castro was ready to rid the island of the capitalism that he found so “repugnant.”2 So, in a curious location—a suite on the twenty-third floor of the newly built Havana Hilton—he set up shop.3 Photographer Lester Cole could not have known that he was sleeping under the same roof as the man whose face would become one of the most recognizable of the twentieth century. A New York City corporate photographer by trade, Cole had come to Havana only a few months before on assignment from Diplomat Magazine.4 He was to photograph Cuban heads of industry, a simple job for a man who had made his name photographing countless executives in the 1950s. But as Cuban rebels began to stream into the lobby of his hotel on that January 1959 morning, he saw a different opportunity. Cole grabbed a camera—hastily borrowed from a hotel employee—and began to shoot.5 By the time Cole had returned to the makeshift darkroom in his hotel suite, he had in his hands Armed Cuban Rebel Soldiers, a captivating photograph depicting rebels mugging for the camera in the Hilton lobby. Cole knew he had created a work of “human interest” that he would be able to sell to Newsweek if he had the right contacts.6 But Cole did not realize that the negative he had developed was something more: a depiction of the socialist ideal delicately undermined by man’s struggle for power and glory. Rebel Soldiers, as a piece of history, serves as a commentary on the Cuban revolution. As a powerful image, Rebel Soldiers provides insight into the medium of photography itself. With a glance through Cole’s lens, Rebel Soldiers displays an overpowering uniformity, a vindication of the Cubans’ egalitarian objective. Amidst the sea of faces is a sea of armaments; for every upright body there is an upright gun. While every man wears his own distinct hat, the facial expressions are constant. The men are glum, too tired from months of fighting to smile for the camera, even though the battle has been won. Despite the long faces, the photograph initially conveys a triumph
Larry J. Bockman, The Spirit of Moncada: Fidel Castro's Rise to Power, 1953-1959, U.S. Marine Corps, (Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 1984), 103-104.
Sebastian Balfour, Castro: Profiles in Power, (London: Longman, 2000), 167.
Robert E. Quirk, Fidel Castro, (New York: Norton, 1995), 210.
Big Known Names, Dir. Dan Silverstein, The Fifth Annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, http://newburyportfilmfestival.withoutabox.com/festivals (accessed March 8, 2008).
Lester Cole, Jan. 1959, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.
27 Exposé 2007–2008
Lester Cole, Untitled (Group of Soldiers in the Lobby of the Havana Hilton,Cuba). 1959. Gelatin silver print, 26 x 34 cm. Harvard Art Museum, Fogg Art Museum, On deposit from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, American Professional Photographers Collection, 4.2002.501.
of the socialist ideals upon which the soldiers’ revolution was founded. There is a seeming equality in this photograph, even if it is only apparent in tens of faces too dulled by war to smile. The men stand together as a unit, united in their cause. Cole also embeds this photograph with a message of economic equality. The viewer is presented with a contrast of paradise and peasantry. The hotel is elegant and new, with current 1950s architecture and a room rate intended for foreigners. The Havana Hilton had only been completed nine months prior to Castro’s arrival and was jointly designed by American and Cuban architecture firms.7 The photo shows rising columns, a second-floor balustrade, and a shallow pool barely visible on the far left side. A palm tree emerges behind the men in the background; while the palm is a ubiquitous tropical symbol, the luxury of having one indoors is unmistakable. Yet as luxury envelops the scene, simply dressed men, without Bermuda shorts or a tourist mentality, fill the lobby. They have left the pueblo to fight a revolution. None of these
men could have afforded to stay in the hotel; now the property is theirs. The presence of the men in the hotel lobby is a sign of the breakdown of class barriers. Indeed, Cole notes in a letter to a colleague that one hotel employee had left for the hills, built a tank, and come back as a rebel soldier. His rifle is now enough collateral to make him the hotel’s part-owner. The men later inhabit the hotel without pretension, according to Cole, forgoing the hotel beds to sleep on mats on the floor after “years of bedding down in the hills.”8 But at the same time that the barriers of class seem to fracture, new power struggles are emerging. In the upper left corner of the photo stand a few men in suit and tie who witness the scene with a removed air. The men stand in the balcony above the soldiers, and their body language indicates that they are separate from the scene below. They slouch forward and lean on
Lee Cott, "Development Culture and Identity,” Harvard Review of Latin America, Winter 2002.
Lester Cole, Jan. 1959, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA.
28 Exposé 2007–2008
the balcony in a calm repose, contrasting with the tense bodies of the rebels. Their relaxed presence on the balcony reveals their nonchalance toward the armed militants; these men on the second floor feel unchallenged and powerful in the face of military strength. Perhaps hotel managers, these men seem to be a remnant of Cuba’s pre-revolution economy, and a few armed countrymen have not succeeded in displacing them. The A quest for power and two-tiered framing of this photograph hints at the struggle Cuba is aggrandizement, contrary to face in the years to come between the Cubans who had previously held power and those who had newly to the socialist ideal but seized it.9 Another struggle for authority familiar to the American plays out in the foreground. The Cole photograph Prelude to Rebel with the camera, likely Soldiers, taken just before Rebel Soldiers, shows a woman, identified motivated these men to by Cole as Nina Piloto, standing alone in front of the male soldiers in a position of dominance as she stop what they were stares at the camera.10 In Rebel Soldiers, however, her position of doing and try not to blink. singular leadership has been diluted. A man now stands slightly in front of Piloto, and she, having been demoted from the center of attention, looks forlornly into the distance. This new main subject is a man of contrasts. He wears white as others wear darker tones. He smiles while most others do not, and he holds a smaller gun as if to imply he is not the guerrilla soldier the other men are. A comparison of the two photoThe medium of graphs, which depict Piloto and the man jockeying for position as leader photography—whose of the troops, reveals a conflict. The man, with a distinct garb and demeanor that does not match that cold, egalitarian nature of his soldiers, seems to have won the battle. would in principle give As the soldiers transitioned from their roles as revolutionaries to the Cuban rebels some- political leaders, so did the photographer make a departure from his thing to root for—cannot previous work. Lester Cole had been an executive portrait photorapher, having taken shots of Max hide the bold ambitions Factor, the Ford family, and even President Batista before he fled the of its subjects. country.11 But Cole was also an
entrepreneur of the moment, and his correspondence in the days following the revolution showed an urgency to send his negatives to America so that mainstream magazines could pay to publish them. He even suggested to a colleague that he order a new stamp—placed in the lower right corner of his prints—so as to give Rebel Soldiers and other photographs like it a credit line distinct from his corporate work.12 One can only wonder if knowledge of Cole’s commercial motives ran through the minds of these socialist rebels as they posed for the camera. The same questions can be asked of Fidel Castro; Cole took his first portraits as the new Cuban president.13 But even if Castro and the soldiers did know that Cole’s interest in capturing them on film was fueled by capitalist ambition and a hunger for greater fame, they may not have cared, betraying the ideas upon which they had founded their revolution. For the men, this photograph would be a validation of their efforts and, if published widely, would make them the face of the revolution. A quest for power and aggrandizement, contrary to the socialist ideal but familiar to the American with the camera, likely motivated these men to stop what they were doing and try not to blink. As the photographer and subjects attempt to depict the socialist ideal, the self-interested motives of all involved pose a series of contradictions. Cole and the soldiers try to tell a story of equality, but an unflinching photo lens uncovers a different one. The man and woman in the foreground compete to be the leader. And a few well-dressed men who look over the balcony with an air of authority hint that the socialist dream of the Cuban rebel force may not come to fruition as imagined. In the end, this photograph captures a reality more complex than either the photographer 9
Philip Peters, “Cuba's Economy: Mistaken Blame,” Latin Business Chronicle, 14 Aug. 2006.
10 Lester Cole, Armed Cuban Rebel Soldiers, 1959, Havana, Cuba, Corbis, 8 Mar. 2008. 11 Big Known Names, Dir. Dan Silverstein, The Fifth Annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, http://newburyportfilmfestival.withoutabox.com/festivals (accessed March 8, 2008). 12 Lester Cole, Jan. 1959, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA. 13 Big Known Names, Dir. Dan Silverstein, The Fifth Annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival, http://newburyportfilmfestival.withoutabox.com/festivals (accessed March 8, 2008).
29 Exposé 2007–2008
or the subjects want it to be. The medium of photography—whose cold, egalitarian nature would in principle give the Cuban rebels something to root for—cannot hide the bold ambitions of its subjects. Nor can it hide the entrepreneurial intent of its photographer. The Cubans in Rebel Soldiers fight for authority over one another; likewise photographers must fight for authority over an unyielding medium. The blame of an unintended photographic reality does not lie with Cole or the soldiers but, instead, with the medium itself. The photograph provides a more accurate mirror on the human condition than even its photographer intends; it makes no efforts to distort reality when it can simply accept it. Rebel Soldiers is a moment candidly frozen in time, unequivocally depicting a fight for authority that has yet to produce a winner. And this photograph also makes clear one more truth: photography itself is a power struggle. The photographer often attempts to subvert the moment—to tell a story and to assign meaning where it is not. The camera, as one can see in Rebel Soldiers, fights back with a superior truth, a reality that the medium cannot gloss over. By 1960, Lester Cole had seemingly captured all of Cuba on film. He had photographed businessmen and rebels, Cadillacs and tanks, Batista’s last days as leader and Castro’s first. Now opportunity called Cole elsewhere; it was time to leave Havana. As Lester Cole made arrangements to leave Cuba, he found his assets frozen by the Cuban government. His hired secretary was able to free them, but only with a lie: she told authorities that Cole was Castro’s personal photographer.14 However, Cole’s Castro portraits speak of a different reality.15 Castro’s unsteady gaze and clenched body language demonstrate that Cole and Castro have no personal rapport, no longstanding relationship built up over time. This is instead an example of Cole’s typical work: Castro’s photograph is the impersonal portrait of a strait-laced, uninspiring corporate executive that Cole had taken so many times in the past. Cole assigned personal meaning to this work out of financial necessity, but the viewer of these
14 Lester Cole, Jan. 1959, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA. 15 Lester Cole, Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro, 1959, Havana, Cuba, Corbis, 8 Mar. 2008.
images senses a much different meaning. The camera is not fooled, and again, the photograph has fought back against the photographer— with an uneasy truth.
Works Cited Balfour, Sebastian. Castro: Profiles in Power. London: Longman, 2000. 167. Big Known Names. Dir. Dan Silverstein. The Fifth Annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival. 8 Mar. 2008 <http://newburyportfilmfestival.withoutabox.com/festivals/event_item.php?id=11345&fetch=details>. Bockman, Larry J. The Spirit of Moncada: Fidel Castro’s Rise to Power, 1953-1959. U.S. Marine Corps. Quantico, Virginia: Marine Corps Command and Staff College, 1984. 103-104. Cole, Lester. Armed Cuban Rebel Soldiers. 1959. Havana, Cuba. Corbis. 8 Mar. 2008. Cole, Lester. Cuban Dictator Fidel Castro. 1959. Havana, Cuba. Corbis. 8 Mar. 2008. Cole, Lester. Jan. 1959. Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA. Cott, Lee. “Development Culture and Identity.” Harvard Review of Latin America Winter 2002. Peters, Philip. “Cuba’s Economy: Mistaken Blame.” Latin Business Chronicle 14 Aug. 2006. Quirk, Robert E. Fidel Castro. New York: Norton, 1995. 210.
30 Exposé 2007–2008
Split City: Economic and Cultural Divisions in Modern Mumbai umbai, India. It is a city by the sea, a powerful metropolis at the forefront of South Asia’s economic boom, an intense blend of culture and history. Here impressive colonial architecture towers over Asia’s largest slums, sports complexes share the skyline with temples and mosques, and beggars and Bollywood stars coexist. With over sixteen million inhabitants, Mumbai’s combination of overpopulation and cultural and economic vitality produces a powerful dynamic—it is a split city, an urban jungle in which diversity and segmentation thrive hand in hand. This complexity is the focus of Suketu Mehta’s exploration in Maximum City. Based on Mehta’s personal experience moving back to India after decades in America, this book is both a personal memoir and an exposé of the urban phenomena shaping Mumbai. Through his observations, Mehta reveals the extreme disparity and divisions that exist within the city. While highlighting cultural affiliation as a potent force in Mumbai, Mehta also exposes how economic concerns can often transform the effect of cultural distinctions from celebrated diversity to detrimental discrimination. Economist Saskia Sassen provides a valuable perspective on the economic factors that are helping to create potentially dangerous stratification in Mumbai. In Cities in a World Economy, she explains how the development of the global economy has caused sharp socioeconomic polarization, significantly affecting the dynamics of relationships between urban sectors. An application of Sassen’s ideas reveals how economic motivation critically interacts with preexisting cultural identities to produce a troubling phenomenon of urban segmentation. By viewing Mehta’s Mumbai through this lens, it is possible to more fully understand how the powerful force of urban economics can catalyze preexistent social prejudices to produce a disturbing reality of segmentation and violence. According to Sassen, globalization has produced an extreme growth of high- and low-paying jobs, resulting in a widening rich-poor gap in cities around the world. She writes that the “sharp polarization in the profit-making capabilities of different sectors of the economy has always existed. But what we see happening today takes place on a higher order of magnitude, and it is engendering massive distortions in the operations of various markets, from housing to labor” (Sassen 6). As upper echelon jobs in the finance industry explode, there is necessarily a corresponding rise in the demand for supplemental services—jobs that often lack benefits, security, and advancement opportunities (Sassen 106-112). This dynamic reinforces the economic stratification of urban areas and strongly influences the nature of interactions between different segments of the population. This phenomenon is especially relevant to Mumbai; as profitable businesses and financial firms explode, their growth is paralleled by a dramatic expansion of poorly paid workers. Rich and poor proliferate together, with serious social as well as economic ramifications.
31 Exposé 2007–2008
One significant effect of this stratification is the gentrification of major cities as the disparity of economic factors produces “a very high degree of spatial segregation and heavy concentration in central urban areas” (Sassen 103). As Sassen explains, these residential divisions fall largely along lines of nationality or ethnicity as different populations move into urban areas with varying levels of economic success. Cities such as London and New York have demonstrated similar residential trends: As native residents gain wealth, they tend to move away from the city’s center, leaving the heart of the metropolis to be densely populated by poorer foreigners and minorities (Sassen 103). These patterns have particular importance in Mumbai. Due to a combination of restrictive rent legislation and an influx of hopeful migrants, Mehta writes that “some parts of central Bombay have a population density of 1 million people per square mile” (Mehta 16). In accordance with Sassen’s theory, this overpopulation is unevenly distributed along economic lines, with the richest 1/3 of Mumbai’s population inhabiting a full 95% of its total area (Mehta 16). This creates a dynamic in which the most economically
frustrated individuals are forced to live in close proximity with each other, competing not only for jobs but for their very living space. Any visitor to the city is inevitably confronted by this contrast—even tourists enjoying the luxurious Taj Hotel cannot escape the sight of rows upon rows of the expansive Dharavi slum surrounding the sparkling international airport. The desperately crowded conditions of Mumbai’s bottom 2/3 thus intensify the struggle for urban survival. In an attempt to reserve their claim to a piece of the city, many individuals find it necessary to identify themselves with specific groups. The nature of these classifications varies, often with such labels as religion, caste, nationality, and region employed complementarily in the hopes of increasing chances for success by defining and alienating the perceived competition. As Mehta puts it, “the sense of being crowded by the Other in an already overcrowded city is very strong” (Mehta 43). Group affiliations are an attempt to secure a position in the urban jungle by both creating solidarity and pushing out competitors. With such severe limitations on physical space and employment opportunities, it is easy Tess Hellgren, Bombay. 2008.
32 Exposé 2007–2008
for economic concerns to accentuate preexisting cultural distinctions, transforming them into divisive identifications. One such distinction is nationality. Ethnically Indian but culturally American, Mehta himself powerfully feels the separation between his family and the native Bombayites. When reestablishing himself in Mumbai, Mehta discovers that his children are unable to connect with Indian society as he had during his youth. After When jobs and housing transferring his son from a Gujaratito an English-speaking school, he are scarce, as in Mumbai, realizes that despite his change of country, the demographics of his peer group remain remarkably newcomers are often stable. Although Mehta was born and raised in Mumbai, his life in seen as menaces to the America has now made him an outsider in the city. This division works well-being of established both ways: Not only do Mehta and his family feel more comfortable residents, resulting in within the circle of fellow wealthy transnationals, they are more accepted by this demographic than the aforementioned by native Bombayites. “We were too foreign, too ‘cosmopolitan’” to fit in discrimination as an act of with the majority of the population, he writes (Mehta 34). Mehta himeconomic self-protection. self experiences the discrimination against immigrants as he is often forced to pay a “newcomer’s tax”, being charged more than natives under the argument that “You are not from here, you are not Indian, so you deserve to be ripped off” (Mehta 30). Just as foreign visitors are subject to heightened prices in the Mumbai markets, Mehta’s outsider standing means he has not yet earned the right to equal economic consideration with native Bombayites. Yet a crucial factor in this dynamic is not merely Mehta’s foreign status but the underlying economic concerns that immigration represents. Mehta explains that “you belong to the club that takes you in, and this is ours: rich people, English-speaking people, foreign-returned people” (Mehta 34). The key word here is rich— added to their nationality, the financial means of Mehta and his family elevate them above the vast majority of Bombayites, creating a division that is thus fundamentally economic as well as cultural. In the absence of Mehta’s relative wealth, the characteristic of being “foreignreturned” would have a very different result.
Mumbai’s sheer size creates serious economic pressures to which poor immigrants are often the most susceptible. As Mehta puts it, when there is a sense that “somebody needs to go…you start with the poorest. Or the newest. Or the one farthest away from yourself” (111). Immigrants without economic security often feel the burden of these distinctions most heavily, facing the anti-foreign discrimination described by Mehta without having the financial means to counter it. The two possible realities for immigrants fall in line with Sassen’s theory of economic polarization. If immigrants are rich enough, they are embraced by a class of transnational elites; if not, they find no protection from severe discrimination by the local population that is threatened by the arrival of additional economic competition. When jobs and housing are scarce, as in Mumbai, newcomers are often seen as menaces to the well-being of established residents, resulting in the aforementioned discrimination as an act of economic self-protection. Sassen clearly acknowledges the many economic pressures created by immigration, writing that “a large immigrant labor force extends to a range of issues, including the level of wages in the lower part of the labor market and its implications for the cost of living and the competitiveness of local activities, as well as for patterns of segmentation and opportunities of advancement for indigenous workers” (Sassen 103). Thus unemployed immigrants, in addition to being direct competition for available jobs and housing, contribute to economic anxiety by increasing employers’ flexibility—when replacement workers with low expectations are easy to find, there is a corresponding decrease in job security and benefits for employed individuals. This “growing destabilization of employment” only adds to the economic tension in Mumbai (Sassen 102). Mehta’s status may make him conscious of this situation, but his wealth and education shield him from the brunt of its effects by providing a shelter of financial security and alternative group membership. The power of group affiliation can be even stronger, as well as more dangerous, when it comes to religion. Religious separations in Mumbai became starkly apparent in the riots of
33 Exposé 2007–2008
1993: After Hindu nationalists tore down the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992, claiming it had taken the rightful place of a temple to the Hindu god Rama, Hindu-Muslim tensions in Mumbai exploded into violence, stoked by the incendiary Hindu nationalist group Shiv Sena. In a few months, entire neighborhoods were destroyed, shops and homes were looted, and over three hundred people were killed. Although the violence has ceased, many discriminatory sentiments remain, and the power of Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray continues to loom over the city. The memory of the ’93 riots continues to haunt Mumbai, causing divisions between Hindu and Muslim communities that have coexisted for centuries (Mehta 40). The existence and significance of religious prejudices in Mumbai is not to be taken lightly. Hindu-Muslim tensions have been powerfully present in India for many years, particularly in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Decades after this horrific two-way diaspora, many Hindus feel that India is a Hindu nation in which Muslims, who have access to Pakistan, have no place.1 Often such prejudice is so deep seated that individuals cannot identify its roots. This subconscious nature of discriminatory beliefs is expressed by Mehta’s uncle. “How did I have this hatred in me?” he asks. “And I realized I had been taught it since childhood” (Mehta 57). It is this type of sentiment that contributed to rise of Hindu nationalist parties like Shiv Sena, the group responsible for coordinating much of the violence during the Mumbai riots. And neither is the prejudice one-sided—during the carnage of ’93, as Hindus burned Muslims, Muslims were bombing Hindus (Mehta 40-41). What is significant about the religious divisions in Mumbai, however, is that they have not always had such a tangible presence in the city. Mehta writes that “Bombay has hundreds of very different ethnic communities, most of whom heartily dislike one another. They have been tolerating one another for centuries, until now” (Mehta 63). Preexistent prejudices surely existed, but they did not erupt until the presence of economic frustration sparked the fire. Mehta notes that the reality of critical overpopulation and economic insecurity in Mumbai has produced an increasingly fraught generation of young men without adequate opportunities for employment or housing, men who often feel
powerless to fulfill their roles as sons, fathers, and husbands (Mehta 72). This trend is symptomatic of the phenomenon described by Sassen that “[economic] growth contributes to inequality rather than to expansion of the middle class” (Sassen 117). This reality means that increasingly large sectors of Mumbai’s population lack economic opportunity, producing a desperation that can all too easily turn to anger—anger which can then be harnessed by such movements as the Preexistent prejudices Hindu-Muslim riots that offer an outlet for individuals disillusioned surely existed, but with their economic situations. “Young blood, young men, youngthey did not erupt sters without jobs are like dry gunpowder,” explains Shiv Sena leader Thackeray. “It will explode until the presence of any day” (Mehta 104). Mumbai’s religious conflicts in 1993 can thus economic frustration be understood as a result of the manipulation of pervasive economic sparked the fire. distress. While long-held religious attitudes were a key factor, the underlying catalyst was the economic disparity delineated by Sassen. It is important to note that economic considerations have more than merely divisive potential. While they can cause the eruption of religious violence, so too can they spur partnerships and even encourage the dissolution of cultural prejudices, if only selectively. When the economic incentive switches from competition to cooperation, behavior adjusts accordingly from conflict to conciliation. “Bombayites understand that business comes first,” Mehta explains; when cultural prejudices are opposed to potential economic gains, it is the economic factors that take precedence (Mehta 43). This reality is epitomized by Mehta’s interview with Sunil, a Hindu nationalist who killed Muslims during the ’93 riots while continuing to do business with them, buying and selling chickens in the morning from the community whose members he murdered in the afternoon. After the riots he continued to maintain strong economic ties with many Muslims in the interest of business, providing cable TV to Muslim neighborhoods and even eating at the homes of Muslim clients (Mehta 43). While his personal
Thanks to Professor Rena Fonseca for her help in understanding the impact of Partition.
34 Exposé 2007–2008
prejudices may remain intact, Sunil’s conciliatory actions instead fall in line with his financial concerns. This decision opens up the potential for future conciliation, as Mehta notes. “The color of someone’s money is becoming more important than that of the religious flag he carries in a procession,” he explains. “Bombay is seducing him away from hate, through the even more powerful attraction of greed” (Mehta 93). Nor are religious divisions the only cultural distinctions that can be bridged by economic concerns. Mehta points out that even such ancient, culturally ingrained concepts as caste can be overshadowed by economic status (Mehta 26). “Change of caste is a mechanism for evolutionary survival,” he writes. “Brahmins in a god-fearing age; Vaisyas in one where money is god. And we are in a naturally capitalistic city—a vaisya-nagra—one that understands the moods and movements of money” (Mehta 20). While the Brahminic priest class is traditionally considered more noble than Vaisya traders, Mumbai’s social Mumbai’s situation strata are being challenged and inverted by economic developments. provides a valuable case In the face of increasing urban polarization and separation, the ability of economics to bridge culstudy of the potential tural divides is indeed a hopeful sign. dangers that arise when There are of course exceptions to the transformative power of ecosuch economic disparity nomics. Indeed, in many cases, “emotional connection” triumphs combines with forceful over considerations of profit and finance. Mehta recounts such experiences as receiving a 20% “vegetarcultural prejudices. ian discount” on rent from his Gujarati landlord and jumping the line to receive cooking gas cylinders because the clerk is sympathetic to his children—of this transaction Mehta writes, “once the emotional connection was made, the rest was easy” (Mehta 19, 25-26). These anecdotes are valuable because they reveal the innate humanity that remains a crucial factor in urban interactions, a consideration that can be easily overlooked as the impact of human emotion is difficult to quantify into observable overarching trends. Thus while individuals’ economic fortunes can shape their perceptions of identity and character, stories of personal interactions demonstrate that very often the opposite may
prove true—in many cases, economic benefits in fact result from personal relationships. This intimate side of economic interactions can also reach dark extremes. The prevalence and legitimacy of corruption in the city shows that Bombayites are often so driven by the desire for personal economic gain that corruption and dishonesty become popular, even admirable, tools for success. “A man who has made his money through a scam is more respected than a man who has made his money through hard work,” writes Mehta, “because the ethic of Bombay is upward mobility and a scam is a shortcut” (Mehta 26). This willingness to accept and endorse cheating, lying, and stealing for economic success is just as much an aspect of Mumbai as are Mehta’s positive anecdotes of generous and beneficial exchanges—the dynamics of urban interactions in Mumbai cannot be understood without a recognition of both. The mindset that “money is god” greatly influences many of the prominent urban divisions in Mumbai. Cultural differences are an important contributor to the city’s partitioned reality, but prejudices based on nationality or religion are not the only driving force behind the conscious recognition and enforcement of urban segmentation. While cultural prejudices may exist entirely separately from financial considerations, an examination of Mehta’s Mumbai through Sassen’s understanding of the global economy reveals a more complicated dynamic. Here, economic factors act as powerful catalysts, amplifying private attitudes into prominent population divisions. It is thus the combination of cultural concerns and economic motivation that produces Mumbai’s volatile urban stratification. The resulting possibility for discrimination and violence among urban sectors is a disconcerting prospect, especially given the implications for the future. If current global economic trends continue unabated, the economic polarization noted by Sassen seems poised to become even more dominant in major global cities—battles over gentrification and immigration have already scarred many locales. Mumbai’s situation provides a valuable case study of the potential dangers that arise when such economic disparity combines with forceful cultural prejudices. With the city’s advance into the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen if economic interests will continue to combine with cultural concerns to transform impressive
35 Exposé 2007–2008
Tess Hellgren, Bombay. 2008.
diversity into a source of division rather than vitality. As Mehta suggests in Maximum City, Mumbai’s final urban dynamic will make a statement far beyond the city itself. “Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet,” he writes (Mehta 3). Whether the split city’s collision of economics and culture ends in dissection or unity, Mumbai’s ultimate fate may well prove to be a blueprint for cities across the globe.
Works Cited Mehta, Suketu. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. Knopf: New York, 2004. Sassen, Saskia. Cities in a World Economy. Pine Forge Press: London, 1994.
36 Exposé 2007–2008
Stalemate:“A Game of Chess” between Author and Reader in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land he English literary tradition has seen more than its fair share of poet-critics, but it has rarely faced a hybrid more paradoxical than T.S. Eliot. In him the poet and critic were two distinct identities, and the two could not live in harmony. There remained an irresolvable tension between the critic’s theories, which advocated impersonality, and the poet’s execution, which remained defiantly, if fleetingly, personal. It was this tension, in significant part, that produced and sculpted The Waste Land. As a consequence the poem became a sort of battleground for the poet and critic, a space where the two halves of Eliot’s intellect could duel in a chaotic, zero-sum game. Yet the poem is not just one man’s playground. It holds in store for each reader a vague but convincing promise of some secret coherence behind the shapeless cacophony. In the face of all the allusions and esoterica, all the taunting and bewildering endnotes, the reader cannot help but suspect
T Bain News Service, Men Playing Chess. Photograph from the George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-33886.
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some method to the madness, nor can he or she help to aim to devise some greater method to expose it. Thus this private battle between poet and critic results in a struggle between the text and its audience, a contest between author and reader. The arena for this contest, moreover, is hardly an abstraction: we find it named in the title of the poem’s second section: “A Game of Chess.” The poem—and by extension, literature in general—takes on the structure of a chess match, in which the author operates according to certain rules, using strategies of misdirection and evasiveness to keep the reader from pinpointing him and giving the text a definitive explanation. The ideal of impersonality, as Eliot once described it, depended on one thing above all else: the author’s ability to keep his creative processes independent from all other aspects of his self. “The progress of the artist,” he said, “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality,” (North 117). No human can destroy his own personality, of course, but as a critic Eliot argued that an artist can, and ought to, suppress it, lest it interact with the “passions that are his material,” (117). Eliot continued by saying that “[t]he more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” According to this system, in a perfect work of art the man would have no presence whatsoever in the creation. All recognizably human aspects of the author would be absent, leaving only a pure creative force—and a pure creation. The Waste Land, however, falls short of achieving this state of purity. The clearest challenge to Eliot’s ideal of impersonality occurs in the middle of “A Game of Chess” during the argument between what seems to be a romantically involved couple. The characters behind the voices and setting are kept ambiguous, but the most likely reading seems to be that Eliot based the two in dialogue on his wife and himself. Upon first hearing the poem, Virginia Woolf reported that Mary Hutchinson, a close friend of Eliot’s wife and a personal confidant of the poet himself, interpreted the entire poem as “Tom’s autobiography—a melancholy one” (137). Furthermore, the lines, “I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / With my hair down so,” (132-133) recall an almost identical threat made to Eliot by his wife. “A Game of Chess” would not be the only time that Eliot has
asserted his own presence on the poem— another notable example is at line 182, when he mentions “the waters of Leman,” a lake of great personal significance—but this section would nevertheless seem to contradict his clearly articulated ideal of the impersonal author. Rather than try to forcibly reconcile this passage with Eliot’s essay, it is more constructive to consider it a deliberate failure to fulfill his own ideals—the poet’s conspicuous act of subversion, even sabotage, in the face of the critic’s detached theorizing. The content of the argument, however, offers a different sort of tension, and it is one that the reader should find eerily familiar. The conversation consists mostly of the feminine voice, modeled after Eliot’s wife, berating the other for his reticence; Rather than try to forcibly her core complaint is that the man will not let her into his mind: ‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak. ‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? ‘I never know what you are thinking. Think. (112-114)
reconcile this passage with Eliot’s essay, it is more constructive to
consider it a deliberate
The movement from commands to questions and back again characterizes the speaker as unreasonably failure to fulfill his own demanding, even nagging. It demonstrates a fundamental disconnect ideals—the poet’s between the two people in regards to how they communicate, and conspicuous act of what they think communication even means. The speaker here starts subversion, even out telling the other to speak— apparently he never does—but this gets no response. The speaker, there- sabotage, in the fore, assumes from the other’s silence that he must be turning some face of the critic’s significant thoughts over in his mind. The three questions of the detached theorizing. second line are much more than nagging, however; their shortening indicates more than frustration and impatience. As they shrink syntactically toward the smallest possible question—“What?”—they also expand in meaning to the point of being totally impossible to answer. “What are you thinking of?” has some level of precision; it demands an object, or an idea. “What thinking?” seems to be asking about the nature of his thought—the
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processes, his mind’s inner workings. And the final “What?” could be asking for anything; it might as well be asking for everything. Just as the man being berated by these questions stays silent, so too do Eliot and The Waste Land remain uncooperative under the critical microscope. Eliot does not want to explain himself; the poem does not want to explain itself; indeed neither believes it is possible to do so. The three questions of this line encapsulate the pointlessness of critical probing as well as the frustration on the part of the poet, or the test itself, for having to endure it. The final line caps off this frustration by highlighting an especially unreasonable logical leap. The speaker does not understand the other’s thoughts, and seems to And for all its therefore assume that he has none. “Think,” is the final command. inconsistencies with The speaker cannot make sense of something, so the speaker comEliot’s ideals of mands it to make sense on its own; the speaker is, in fact, the worst and laziest kind of reader—unreasonimpersonality, the able in its demands and inadequate in its comprehension. poem reflects almost In the one instance when the masculine voice of this passage perfectly his concept seems to be speaking frankly, and in unquoted terms, it suggests that the of rearrangement. couple play a game of chess (137). Eliot chooses chess carefully as a metaphor. On the literThe Waste Land multilayered al level it is a competition, a test of intellects between two people. More demonstrates that broadly it represents the whole interaction between the two characliterature itself is a ters in this scene. As Cleanth Brooks Jr. points out, the game of chess is game of chess. an apt descriptor for the behavior of these two, as their relationship follows “arbitrary” rules, defined by “convention only” (190). The speaker’s response to the question “What shall we ever do?” (ll. 134) reflects this idea of rules, particularly through the rigid schedule he sets—“The hot water at ten./And if it rains, a closed car at four” (135-136). Yet the fact that Eliot names an entire section of his poem “A Game of chess” signals that the concept carries some broader significance. Indeed, to some extent, the entire structure of the poem corresponds to the structure of a chess game. Chess represents a finite
playing field, on which only so many pieces exist and only so many moves are possible— yet the game endures because of the dynamic interplay of a virtually limitless combination of possible moves. In chess it is impossible to make a single move that has never been made before, but it is conceivable that a game should play out in a way never before seen. In this sense it resembles Eliot’s conception of a new literature, in which “[t]he existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them” (115). And for all its inconsistencies with Eliot’s ideals of impersonality, the poem reflects almost perfectly his concept of rearrangement. The Waste Land demonstrates that literature itself is a game of chess. This reading, however, provokes one immediate and obvious question: in this game of chess, what does it mean to win? Roland Barthes presents one perspective on the nature of the author that suggests a rather different sort of competition between author and critic: Once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a test an Author is to impose a limit on that text…Such a conception suits criticism very well, the latter then allotting itself the important task of discovering the Author…beneath the work: when the Author has been found, the text is ‘explained’—victory to the critic. (147) Barthes himself rebels against this view, arguing that the figure of the author should remain irrelevant, so that the text can remain unbound, completely at the disposal of the reader. This stance complements the argument of Eliot’s essay; whereas Eliot stated that the author ought to remove himself, Barthes supposes that duty falls within the domain of the critic. But Barthes may be too quick to cast off the concept of a reader’s “victory,” for Eliot seems to have an equal and opposite goal in mind—that is, removing himself from the text entirely, so that he cannot be found. By Eliot’s philosophy, the ideal of impersonality would not necessarily be a means of opening up the text to the reader; rather, it would be a definitive victory on the part of the author—or perhaps a circumvention of the competition altogether. But whatever
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harmony or discord exists between the theories of Eliot and Barthes, The Waste Land casts an errant note by not living up to either of them. The author is present, if only in flashes few and far between. Contrary to what Barthes insists, the author is not dead in the text. Contrary to what Eliot the critic advocates, Eliot the poet does not write with total impersonality. To view the author as totally ‘dead’—absent or impersonal—would only detract from the reader’s understanding of the text; yet at the same time he is not totally alive—he cannot be teased out
the key to understanding it. This reading hits on one central facet of the poem—namely, that no one unifying theme, idea, or other undercurrent probably exists within the work, nor does Eliot mean to conceal one. It also fits in nicely with Barthes’ view; he argues that readers should not search out one explanation for a text, while Ellmann argues that readers should not search out one solution to Eliot’s riddles. Yet Ellmann’s reading is incomplete. Eliot is not hiding any secret within The Waste Land; The Waste Land is hiding him. This sphinx does have a secret Lewis Hine, Herschel Bonham, Route A, Box 118, an 11-year-old boy cultivating peas. April 1917. Photograph from the records of the National Child Labor Committee. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-nclc-00676.
from the text and he cannot be counted on to explain anything. Rather than removing himself, Eliot has only managed to avoid being found. Thus competition survives, and the strategy of the poem, like the strategy of a skilled chess player, relies on mystery and misdirection. Maud Ellmann addresses the nature of this mystery and misdirection in her essay, “A Sphinx Without a Secret.” The title of the piece is its tagline; she argues that “The Waste Land is a sphinx without a secret…and to force it to confession may also be a way of killing it” (259). The Waste Land, in her view, is essentially a series of riddles which have no answer, thus no amount of analysis or research can produce
after all; it is the secret Barthes neglects and Eliot fiercely protects; it is the man who suffers behind the mind that creates; it is, in a word, the author. The sphinx analogy, however, is too limited to capture what is happening in The Waste Land; if the author is the secret, he still does not solve anything. The secret exists, but it also amounts to nothing. The chess game drags on, as Eliot draws out eyes and thoughts in countless directions at once with bold, surprising moves, none of them more valid, original, or meaningful than any other—all the while distracting us from nothing.
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The chess metaphor too has its limit, of course, and following it to its logical terminus reveals a fundamental quality of both The Waste Land and Eliot’s conception of the author. If we accept that the poem represents a tactical, strategic competition between author and reader, then who shall we say wins? Clearly the readers do not win, for the text has not been and will not ever be “explained.” By the same token, however, one cannot say that Eliot wins; he eludes the reader, and skirts defeat, but he does not convince the reader he is absent. The result, therefore, is a stalemate. And if there is any winner it in a stalemate, it is the chess game itself; the two parties are driven to paralysis, a pointless dance into infinity, an indecisive end, due to the limits imposed by the rules. The game of chess between the two speakers in the poem results in both of them remaining uncommunicative, totally distant, and bound by quotation and an arbitrary schedule—it results in them simply playing chess, endlessly, “Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door,” (138) from someone or something to break them out of their stalemate. When the one asks the other, “Are you alive, or not?” (126) the answer is both and neither; a stalemate is the gray area between—it is, in fact, a waste land. Perhaps to Eliot the poet this waste land represents some morbid ideal: rather than sacrificing the author for the sake of the reader, as Eliot the critic claimed a perfect author would, and as Barthes believes all literature does, The Waste Land keeps both author and reader halfalive, dead even in their struggle. But if the poem leaves us craving something more from art and thought than the over-tilled and malnourished demesne to which the chessboard consigns both author and reader, perhaps all we can do is avert our eyes, leave Eliot to his stalemate, and remind ourselves it is all only a game, after all.
Bibliography Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” 1968. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 Brooks, Cleanth Jr. “The Waste Land: An Analysis.” 1937. The Waste Land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism / T.S. Eliot. pp. 185-209. Edited by Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001 Eliot, T.S. (Thomas Stearns). The Waste Land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism / T.S. Eliot; edited by Michael North. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001 Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” The Waste Land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism / T.S. Eliot. pp. 114-119. Edited by Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001 Ellman, Maud. “A Sphinx without a Secret.” 1987. The Waste Land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism / T.S. Eliot. pp. 258-275. Edited by Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001 Woolf, Virginia. “[Eliot Chants The Waste Land]” The Waste Land: authoritative text, contexts, criticism / T.S. Eliot. p. 137. Edited by Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001
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Antigone as a Gateway to Civic Obligation in The Island n a first reading, Athol Fugard’s The Island seems a straightforward application of Antigone’s morality to apartheid South Africa. The performance of Antigone which the two imprisoned South Africans put on in Fugard’s play is almost a direct parallel of their current political and personal situation: the state, previously Creon and now the white supremacist government, unjustly enacts regulations that clearly violate individual right and natural law. Similarly, those individuals who rebel are unjustly punished but still know that they were right to do what they did. The comparison is indeed apt, and it is all too easy to simply take the above as the moral message of The Island and walk away contentedly. There are two pointed differences between the works, however: where Sophocles provides one Antigone figure alone in her cell, Fugard has instead the complex interplay of John and Winston, linked through the bonds of brotherhood. If Fugard aimed only to highlight the similarities between apartheid South Africa and this almost universally accepted classical Greek tragedy, would it not have been simpler to concentrate attention solely on the direct comparison that so clearly exists? An equally striking difference lies with the ultimate fate of the characters, for even after Winston comes to realize and seemingly accept Antigone’s philosophy of individualistic idealism, he makes the clear and conscious choice to remain locked into his Living Death rather than recourse to Antigone’s absolute suicide. One could certainly object at this point that differences between the two works arise simply due to the shift in cultural context, but the radical changes in important aspects of the plot point to a deeper alteration of the intended moral message. Indeed, in place of Antigone’s suicide, Fugard presents Winston’s continued will to live; if one also accepts John as an Antigone figure in terms of his unjust imprisonment, the possibility of John’s eventual freedom from Robben Island contrasts markedly with Antigone’s sudden death. That John’s eventual freedom is a significant change goes without saying; the differences between Winston’s Living Death and Antigone’s Death are slightly more subtle. The difference is an important one because much of The Island centers precisely around the contradictions inherent in a Living Death, starting from Winston’s very first spoken words: “I want Hodoshe. I want him now! I want to take him to the office. He must read my warrant. I was sentenced to Life brother, not bloody Death!” (48). Paralleling Antigone, Winston thus initially comprehends only the two opposing notions of Life and Death; he is unwilling or unable to accept a blurring of these two to provide an intermediate, contradictory state. Later, one finds Winston’s greatest fear to be old Harry’s fate, as “he loves stone. That’s why they’re nice to him. He’s forgotten himself. He’s forgotten everything . . . why he’s here, where he comes from. That’s happening to me, John” (71). Such a fate is peculiar to this notion of a Living Death, wherein one has not quite exited Life but nonetheless is close enough to Death to so lose one’s humanity. Ultimately, Winston ends both his portrayal of Antigone in the play-within-the-play and his life as Winston in the entire
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play itself in precisely these terms: “Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs” (77). Especially given that Fugard never even mentions the possibility of a situation analogous to Antigone’s abrupt suicide, the complete reimagining of Sophocles’ presentation of a martyr’s death into Fugard’s depiction of the inherently contradictory state of a Living Death demands explanation. It is prudent to begin with an understanding of how Antigone functions both as a play in its own right and as a subplay of The Island. The modern understanding of this classiHow did this apparently cal Greek tragedy commonly accepts that Antigone is justified in rebelling against the state: the gods entirely contradictory favor natural law over the laws of the state. Even if manmade law conmessage of civic tradicts some action which one feels to be morally right, one is nevertheobligation arise less fully justified in carrying out such an action and is perhaps even from a classical text morally obligated to do so in full defiance of the law of the state. Hence, Antigone represents the stressing the importance power and morality of the individual wherein any action which one of individualistic idealism? feels to be right is automatically justified, regardless of the practicalities and repercussions of carrying it out. As such, this philosophy exemplifies “individualistic idealism” as the consequences of the action simply do not matter: Antigone had no qualms about burying her brother Polynices even though she fully knew that she would die in the process. Furthermore, she could presumably surmise the pain she would, by extension, inflict upon her fiancée Haemon, but even this consequence to another does not matter in Antigone’s version of individualism. In The Island, Fugard and his characters at least come to accept this philosophy, if not wholly embrace it. Winston’s closing phrase of honouring those things to which honour belongs certainly seems to cast this idealism of doing the right thing, even if it incurs some cost, in a favourable light. Nonetheless, if Antigone exemplifies this philosophy of individualistic idealism, it is puzzling that Fugard’s characters only reflect upon Antigone out of a strong obligation to others rather than some abstract and individualistic morality. Consider that the very first time the
audience is presented a discussion of Antigone in The Island, it is immediately preceded by an earnest discussion of how the common rag in the jail cell belongs to both John and Winston, suggesting that any philosophizing about higher moral idealism must ultimately be couched in the reality of John and Winston’s brotherhood. Furthermore, even within the discussion itself, it is clear that Winston only partakes out of a sense of obligation to John, all the while fully expressing his reluctance: “Jesus Christ! Learn to dig for Hodoshe, learn to run for Hodoshe, and what happens when I get back to the cell? Learn to read Antigone!” (52). John, in turn, is at least externally so pressed to learn Antigone out of a similar sense of obligation to others: “Number 42 is practising the Zulu War Dance. Down there they’re rehearsing their songs. It’s just in this moer cell that there’s always an argument. […] How the hell must I know what to report to the chaps tomorrow if we go back to the quarry?” (51). Hence Antigone, in the context of this jail cell of the two South Africans, owes her very existence to this notion of honouring one’s obligation to others. This concept is only finally cemented with the end of the play-within-the-play, for while the last spoken words might reflect an acceptance of individual idealism, the play in fact ends with the stage directions: “they come together and, as in the beginning, their hands come together to suggest handcuffs, and their right and left legs to suggest ankle-chains. They start running…John mumbling a prayer, and Winston a rhythm for their three-legged run” (77). The self-enforced chains between the two is the strongest visual depiction yet of their brotherhood, and its placement at the end of a play about individualism suggests that Fugard recognizes the necessity of a degree of individualism and a degree of idealism, but nonetheless maintains that brotherhood and obligation to others are ultimately far more important. How did this apparently entirely contradictory message of civic obligation arise from a classical text stressing the importance of individualistic idealism? The two notions are essentially antithetical viewpoints on morality, and yet Fugard here melds them in a productive synthesis without destroying the internal structure of his work. Friedrich Hegel’s “Philosophy of Fine Art” articulates how these two equally justifiable opposing notions not only may coexist
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peacefully in some sense, but in fact necessitate each other in order to form a compelling viewpoint. As such, Hegel’s philosophy here provides the first possibility of resolving the myriad contradictions and paradoxes between Fugard’s contemporary work and Sophocles’ classical one by suggesting that such paradoxes are necessary for the sake of effective tragedy. Hegel posits that the most effective tragic characters are those who devote themselves entirely to one principle and guiding action: “they are throughout that which the essential notion of their character enables them and compels them to be. They are not merely a varied totality laid out in the series of views of it proper to the epic manner” (331). Instead, such a character “has made himself inseparably coalesce with some particular aspect of the capital and substantive life content and deliberately commits himself to that” (331). Hegel then realizes that such an unwaveringly consistent totality would clearly not be realistic and that upon translating the tragedy from the plane of the ideal to the plane of reality, the characters would be greatly weakened if their only support lay with themselves. Given that these characters represent a totality, any given tragic character without a suitable opposing force must necessarily repeatedly spout off whatever principles he represents ad nauseum, which would certainly cease to be realistic at some point. Hegel resolves this difficulty by deducing that there must necessarily exist another object or theory that suitably differs from the totality of the original tragic hero, so that the two opposing characters may now support themselves upon each other, arguing against each other so as to preserve this sense of reality. As this other opposing theory must also represent a total unwavering commitment to its guiding principle, Hegel thus concludes that the height of tragedy must consist of pure and unspoiled theories, as manifested in the reality of the tragedy by certain characters who conflict with each other in order to avoid conflicting with themselves. He concisely states this philosophy of tragedy by noting that “the substance of ethical condition is, when viewed as a concrete unity, a totality of different relations and forces” (332). As such, Hegel necessarily imagines a balance of equally valid opposing viewpoints in any tragedy. Hence, it no longer seems entirely paradoxical that Fugard reveals his primary message in
this play to be the civic obligation exhibited by John and Winston rather than the moral philosophy of the play he ostensibly based his work on, namely the individualistic idealism of Antigone. Indeed, Fugard repeatedly demonstrates his adherence to civic obligation over Antigone’s individualism. In the opening passage of the play, where Winston demands his rights according to individualistic idealism, John wisely and rationally restrains Winston purely due to the fear that “if he comes now, we’ll be in bigger shit” (47). Note that John does not warn that if Hodoshe comes, Winston would be in bigger shit, for individual rebellion at the cost of individual pain does not seem to run contrary to Fugard’s philosophy here. It is the danger of communal pain that leads to the restraint of individual rebellion in a perfect example of civic obligation. A further interesting example comes with the exposition of Antigone itself, as John explains the characters to Winston: “Polynices. The traitor! The one whom I said was on our side” (52). John does not offer such a direct link between the situations of the South Africans and any of the other characters in the Greek tragedy, and as such, it is interesting that he identifies most not with Antigone, but with Polynices. While both Greek characters break the rules of their society in some sense, as one is neither supposed to bury traitors nor attack one’s own city at the head of a band of warriors, the former character violates these principles on a personal and individualistic level whereas the latter does so on a communal and political level. John naturally identifies not with Antigone's intensely personal philosophy but with Polynices’s communal tendencies, another reiteration of how Fugard views brotherhood as more important than the individual. Ultimately, the most direct statement of how civic obligation infuses the play comes at the end of the first day, when John explicitly reiterates this point: “I’m saying Don’t Be Hard-Arsed! You! When Hodoshe opens that door tomorrow say ‘Ja, Baas’ the right way. I don’t want to be back on that bloody beach tomorrow just because you feel like being difficult. […] People must remember their responsibilities to others” (56). Fugard acknowledges and appreciates Antigone’s notion of individualistic idealism, but he also notes that it must be couched in and tempered by civic obligation and responsibility to others.
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This careful Hegelian synthesis of Antigone’s individualism and the South Africans’ communalism resolves the question of why Antigone kills herself while Winston does not. For Antigone, there was the very simple choice between Life and Death according to her purely individualistic rationale, and as she was denied Life, she chose Death without any further qualms. In doing so, she acted upon what she felt was morally justified; nonetheless, she simultaneously rejected her responsibilities to others such as Haemon, for whom she was clearly responsible by virtue of being his fiancée. Winston, on the other hand, though well aware of the contradictions of a Living Death, chooses to subject himself to such a situation wholly out of a sense of obligation to others. It is not even clear who exactly these other people might be, since Fugard never introduces Winston’s wife or other brethren except in a short and imaginary phone call. Furthermore, Winston is well aware that he and John will forget each other with the passage of time as John will be freed to live his life while Winston remains in prison; as such, Winston does not owe an obligation in this sense to John. In some sense, Winston goes beyond honouring an obligation to any one person and indeed sacrifices himself for the community as a whole. Winston’s sacrifice is thus all the more amazing and firmly cements Fugard’s point that while individualistic idealism is important and can provide clear-cut choices between what is morally right according to the individual and what is not, the mitigating factor of civic obligation sufficiently blurs these clear choices to such an extent that the individualistic idealism of Antigone is no longer entirely useful. On one level, the initial question has now been answered. Winston chooses not to suicide and there are two people in the cell due to the shift of emphasis from pure individualism to civic obligation and brotherhood. Nevertheless, this answer is not entirely satisfactory in and of itself, since it immediately raises the question of how and why Fugard could possibly focus his play around Antigone given that he advocates the importance of community, a principle standing in direct opposition to Antigone’s notion of individualistic idealism. Here, Hegel’s formulation of tragedy provides a further refinement of the original answer: not only is this collision of equally justifiable opposing viewpoints logically consistent, it is in fact essential to the play’s
identity as a tragedy. However, more carefully analyzing this Hegelian philosophy reveals that even this further refinement is still lacking as an answer to our original question, for Hegelianism may indeed not be as directly applicable to Fugard’s text as one might hope. For example, in a truly Hegelian synthesis, should not Fugard weigh the opposing notions of individualism and communalism equally rather than choosing a clear favorite? How then does Fugard nevertheless manage to clearly indicate the importance of obligation to others over individualistic morality? The Island does seem to initially fall in line with Hegelianism. In keeping with Hegel's theory of the two sides of the main argument being equally treated, Fugard certainly softens his tone in his treatment of Antigone. Indeed, the classical Greek tragedy presented a clear dichotomy between Antigone’s individualism and how she was opposed on all sides by the opposing viewpoint of conformism to the state even at the cost of individual morality; Creon certainly championed such a view but so too did Ismene in the original scene and the chorus, at least initially. As such, Fugard’s stress on civic obligation, rather than brashly embracing individualism, directly leads to a far more balanced view of this debate in his adaptation of Antigone. Nonetheless, Hegel’s theory of synthesis has only limited explanatory value here, as Fugard only tempers his tone on the issue within the play-within-the-play. In the setting of The Island itself, namely the conflict between the black South Africans and the white supremacist government, Fugard makes no concessions that the government may actually be doing the right thing, leaving the audience fully exposed to the pain and suffering caused by apartheid without any counterpoint on the opposing side. Hence, one notes that any application of Hegelian philosophy to Fugard’s work can only succeed on a secondary level, as the subplay concerning the debate between individual idealism and civic obligation certainly reflects these Hegelian ideas, but the overarching conflict caused by apartheid does not. The breakdown of Hegel’s philosophy with respect to The Island lies with Hegel’s assumption that the characters, representing a pure principle, be free of internal contradictions when placed within reality; Fugard rejects this assumption by presenting the characters with internal contradictions, namely the
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debate between individualism and societal duty. In doing so, he rids himself of the need for any counterpoint to the suffering of the two South Africans so that on the larger scale, his position remains unblemished. There are two somewhat unsatisfactory aspects of this rationalization, however: first, given that Fugard so adroitly structures the work such that the two antithetical philosophies only apply to a markedly smaller part of The Island, why couldn’t this process extend still further, ultimately allowing Hegel’s ideas to only manifest themselves within an even smaller domain of Fugard’s philosophical message? Indeed, Fugard could have picked an even smaller issue contained within the discussion of idealism versus communalism and focused attention entirely on that, thus introducing the two opposing philosophies at that even smaller sublevel. It is clear that this complete minimalisation does not in fact occur, for there is indeed a meaningful debate at the level of individualistic idealism and civic obligation, so why exactly does Fugard choose to focus attention here rather than refining his message further? Second, even this debate is still not entirely explainable by means of Hegelianism as Winston very consciously makes the choice to not suicide. Hence Fugard does take a definite stance on this issue as well, making the claim that civic obligation must be considered more heavily than the individualistic aspects of morality; Hegel would oppose this preferential treatment of one of the two opposing philosophies. Hegel’s ideas do provide a useful lens for understanding The Island at the level of the playwithin-the-play, namely the debate between individualistic morality and communal obligation, but the philosophy does not ultimately provide an answer to the original question of how Antigone functions in terms of form and content. Consequently, the philosophy therein must ultimately be charged by yet other sources. One of these sources is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy,” which illuminates how the acknowledgement of the individual couched within the importance of community stems from something intrinsic to the nature of the individual suspended within society. In fact, the foundations of Nietzsche’s theoretical conceptualizations pose a striking resemblance to Emerson’s notion of the Over-Soul as an overall spirit that
links all living beings, but Nietzsche goes on to temper the applicability of this concept. He constructs a dichotomy between the Apollonian “principium individuationis” and the Dionysiac sense of communal oneness, which “breaks the spell of individuation and opens a path to the maternal womb of being” (343). Nietzsche further argues that the “supreme significance” and mysteries of life stem from Dionysiac art, which serves to express and clarify “the omnipotent Hence, the idealism of will behind individuation, eternal life continuing beyond all appear- Antigone by no means ance and in spite of destruction” (345). Nietzsche hence posits that the true nature of life itself is that of functions as an end in a supreme will that links all individitself; rather, it is merely uals, almost to the point of merging all into a single entity. Nonetheless, Nietzsche does not envision a com- an Apollonian anchor plete and total contemplation by man of this Dionysiac art, for such that allows Fugard to a complete submersion would without doubt shatter the man: “how is delve deeply into the it possible for a man who has listened to the very heartbeat of the world-will and felt the unruly lust Dionysiac content of for life rush into all the veins of the world, [. . .] how is it possible for his work, namely the him to remain unshattered?” (347). Thus, Nietzsche rejects the notion brotherhood and of a complete union with this OverSoul, this overarching will of the fraternity of the prisoners. world. It is necessary, in order to prevent this complete shattering, that the “Apollonian spirit rescue us from the Dionysiac universality and make us attend, delightedly, to individual forms” (348). Indeed, Nietzsche comes to conclude that the most powerful works are those which come as close as possible to immersing the audience in this Dionysiac universality while still proffering some hint of Apollonian individualism on which to anchor oneself. His meticulous analysis may be applied directly to the general themes that Fugard juggles in The Island: the true nature of the world lies with this Dionysiac universality, but in order to escape shattering, one must shield oneself through the framing of Apollonian individualism. Hence, the idealism of Antigone by no means functions as an end in itself; rather, it is merely an Apollonian anchor that allows
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Fugard to delve deeply into the Dionysiac content of his work, namely the brotherhood and fraternity of the prisoners. As this brotherhood represents the concept of civic obligation, Antigone serves merely a gateway to this concept, acting as a framing device which one must accept Indeed, recall that in order to go further and fully take up the responsibility that focusing attention directly one owes to others. Indeed, when Winston both breaks down and comes to his realizaon the more concrete tion at the end of the third scene, Fugard directly shows political and social how lacking an understanding of Antigone’s individualistic environment of apartheid idealism must logically necessitate a similar lack of underSouth Africa would, per standing of civic obligation. Winston’s act of burning his was an amalgamaHegelianism, necessitate passbook tion of Antigone’s individualistic idealism and Fugard’s civic at least acknowledging obligation, as Winston in doing so was carrying out both the opposing viewpoint what he felt was morally right and what would help others that such oppression out of a sense of obligation to those in his community. could be justified, However, as he had not as yet come to terms with the power he has as an individual, having and Fugard entirely rejected Antigone up to this point, he proves unable to avoids making this cope with the reality of providing for others, vitriolically concession through this lashing out: “Fuck the others. […] Fuck our ideals. […] Fuck subtle maneuver. slogans, fuck politics…fuck everything, John. Why am I here? I’m jealous of your freedom, John. […] Help me, John! […] Help me, brother! […] Nyana we Sizwe!” (72). This passage fully encapsulates Fugard’s use of Antigone as a pathway to brotherhood. Winston’s initial rejection of the others and of the political movement for which he sacrificed himself is revealed to be the product of individual failings, as he is in truth jealous of John’s freedom. It is only with his transformation and realization through the powerful stage directions, wherein “he lives in silence with his reality, then slowly straightens up” (72), that Winston comes to terms with his
rôle as an individual who sacrificed everything for a cause in which he believed; in turn, it is only with this further realization that Winston can come to an understanding of the importance of brotherhood. Hence, instead of rejecting John, as Antigone rejected Ismene, Winston comes to accept John as a brother in their native language. This vast array of Western intellectualism helps to unearth Fugard’s point about the particular political problems of apartheid South Africa. Surprisingly, the central debate between two valid viewpoints that Fugard investigates in The Island revolves not around the larger racial conflict inherent in the setting of the play but rather around how one defines morality, whether individualistically or with a view towards others. Indeed, Fugard does not temper in the slightest his treatment of the horrible conditions of apartheid: the brutalities that the prisoners must undergo provide a constant background of fear and injustice that Fugard allows the audience to feel completely. Rather, he sets up the conflict and debate on a different level, with respect to the question of morality. It is from this carefully chosen starting point that Fugard begins to achieve a progressive Hegelian synthesis between two equally justifiable ethical forces. The subtle minimalisation of the Hegelian conflict and debate to this smaller level on Fugard’s part already merits attention and appreciation, as it allows Fugard to introduce a seeming paradox even at this early stage of the analysis: since Fugard focuses attention on the more abstract moral underpinnings of the situation at hand, one may very well say that the setting in some sense does not even matter, as the concrete details of where exactly the play is set simply fade away as one passes to the more abstract realm of moral philosophy. Nonetheless, it is precisely Fugard’s choice in focusing the main conflict of the play in this more abstract realm that allows the concrete basis that the setting provides to come through so powerfully, as it is thus granted free access to permeate all parts of the play without denial or refutation. Indeed, recall that focusing attention directly on the more concrete political and social environment of apartheid South Africa would, per Hegelianism, necessitate at least acknowledging the opposing viewpoint that such oppression could be justified, and Fugard entirely avoids making this concession through this subtle maneuver.
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However, merely leaving the situation at this level would still be an oversimplification, since Fugard does ultimately indicate that communal morality is more important and must be weighed more heavily than individualism. As such, it is certainly not necessary purely from the viewpoint of the content of The Island that Fugard place undue emphasis on Antigone’s individualism; nonetheless, at first glance, Fugard’s play seems to be entirely based around Antigone. This emphasis is due to the second strand weaving through Fugard’s work: any debate between individualism and community must always take care not to veer too sharply toward the latter at the expense of the former, for then there is always the danger that one’s own individuality shatters. Consequently, as Nietzsche theorized in terms of Apollonian versus Dionysiac art, in spite of the fact that the true nature of the world lies with the Dionysiac, it is always necessary in any work of art to retain some sort of Apollonian anchor on which the individuality of the audience members may be stabilized. It is thus that Antigone forms the foundational basis of The Island. At some level, it does serve to focus attention on the particular debate of individualistic versus communal morality within the larger setting of apartheid through its function as a play-within-a-play, but its primary rôle is as an anchor for the audience to allow them to investigate deeply the true nature of Fugard’s message. Fugard hence neither accepts nor rejects Antigone’s individualistic idealism. He merely uses it as a necessary precursor to the more complex and, as he argues, ultimately more important, governing force of responsibility to others. The answer to the initial question now becomes fully clear. Antigone is used in the first place as this precursory framing device, but there must necessarily be striking differences on all levels to allow audience members to move beyond the anchor and into the Dionysiac art of Fugard’s philosophy. One must hence follow Winston’ path through the piece: the first step is indeed an understanding of Antigone’s individualistic idealism, but it is crucial to progress beyond, to the region where Winston lives and Antigone dies, by continuing on to Fugard’s underlying moral message of civic obligation.
Johann Peter Krafft, Oedipus and Antigone at Colonus. c. 1814, brown ink and wash over graphite on offwhite wove paper, 18 ¼ x 13 5/8”. Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Richard Lewis Hillstrom Fund.
Works Cited Fugard, Athol. The Island. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 1986. Hegel, Freidrich. “The Philosophy of Fine Art.” Tragedy, Vision and Form. Ed. Robert Corrigan. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. Nietzsche, Freidrich. “The Birth of Tragedy.” Tragedy, Vision and Form. Ed. Robert Corrigan. New York: Harper and Row, 1981. Sophocles. Antigone. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group, Inc., 1982.
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Not My Blood THE BROTHERS—2007 “Where is Cole Alden?” I glanced down at my sneakers as if I had just said something awful. The nurse—her silence unnerved me. I saw nothing in her and the notion of a cold grey lake occurred to me. “Are you requesting the location of a patient?” “Yes, yes…” I said. “Top floor, third room on the right.” I had known the Alden brothers since I began knowing people. But somewhere along the line we had drifted apart. Couldn’t remember the last time I spoke to either of them. And now I had my sights set on the big things: honors ceremonies, baseball league championships, a valedictorian speech in two weeks, summer, and after that, Harvard on a scholarship. Yet when I heard that Cole, the younger Alden brother, had been stabbed, and was in critical condition at the hospital, I thought I should see him. I saw the older Alden brother, Frank, standing in the waiting room. Frank was with a kid I knew only as Ziggy, a round fellow with vacant eyes. Ziggy blinked at white walls. Even now, in the hospital, it was clear that he was stoned. “Hey, man!” Frank said, and motioned me over. “Been a long time. Hey thanks for coming man.” “No problem. Is your brother OK?” “Well…you can’t see him now, nobody can. He’s sleeping and the doctors said he needs his rest. Dumbass doctors. Yeah…he’s probably gonna have surgery soon. The doctors say he got brain trauma or something.” “Shit.” I didn’t know anything real to say. “So did you hear what happened?” “Sort of…” I said. “Your brother was supposed to fight some kid, right?” “Yeah, you remember the little bastard with the high voice? In, uh, P.E. class?” “Squeaky?” “Yeah, that bastard. So, this Squeaky fag—” “Just a minute, why was he fighting this kid?” “What?” “How…how did the fight begin?” “Oh, Squeaky posted some shit on my bro’s MySpace.”
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In a dark corner of my mind I glimpsed Squeaky bent double and as I watched I heard the strange tapping of Squeaky’s fingers and the shrill grunting of Squeaky’s voice as he sat at his computer, tapping, tapping, tapping—sending a version of himself off to a place where his horrid squeal could not follow. “Well, anyway, Squeaky, he, uh, was gonna fight my brother at 1:30 Saturday night in the Safeway parking lot. Well, we got there—me, Spence, Big Jeff, and Ziggy here, and my brother of course…” Frank’s left eyebrow gave a small twitch. “…and we waited for twenty minutes and finally Squeaky shows up.” “That little bastard,” Ziggy added. “Yeah…but we hardly ever saw Squeaky’s face. The coward had his dad drive him to the fight!” “His father knew what was going on?” I asked. “Of course he knew. Well, anyway, Squeaky won’t even come out of his car. We wait. Then my brother decides to go over and see what’s up. Me and Spence went over with him, but my brother was in front. He was all pumped up. You know what I mean.” “I can see it.” “It happened.” “I know.” “He wasn’t even shaking. Not at all.” “But your brother is smaller.” “Yes.” “He has always been small.” “Yes. He has always been small.” And prideful, I thought. He has always been small and prideful. With these words the image was illuminated. Faded street lights and a SAFEWAY SUPERMARKET sign lit this deserted parking lot from high above. There was no moonlight. But there were the many shadows that the leaves made on the ancient concrete. And there was my old friend, breathing beneath his grey hood, small and prideful. “You remember how Squeaky used to always brag about how he had older friends— guys in their twenties, not high school kids— who would kick our asses? Guys who didn’t care if they went to prison?” “Yeah.” “Well, some of it was true. All of a sudden Squeaky’s dad—his van starts to drive away
and…and a bunch of these older guys come out of bushes right next to us. Four, five guys maybe.” “Holy shit,” I said. “Yeah. That’s what I thought. Holy-fucking-shit. And one of them has a knife. He gets to my brother first, slices and dices. Slices him up on the shoulder and forehead, like this.” Frank made a vicious, almost comic, gesture with his hand across his head. He waited to let the impact of his motion sink in. “But these guys were cowards. Big Jeff and Ziggy came out to help us, and the older guys ran. Fucking cowards. I saw my brother bleeding from his head and I took my sweater off and wrapped him up. Ruined the fucking sweater.” “Didn’t anyone follow these guys?” “Yeah, but Squeaky’s dad brought the van back around and they jumped in and left.” “So they got away? Are the police going to catch them?” “I don’t know if the cops will get them. But they didn’t all get away. The fucking cowards left one guy behind to get…mopped up.” “Mopped up?” “Oh yeah.” “What did you do with him?” “He was punished. Severely.” “Beat the shit out of him.” “Fucked him up real good,” Ziggy added. “Worse than what they did to my brother,” Frank confirmed. “What happened to him? Hospital too?” “He couldn’t. The police would get him there.” “But if he was worse than your brother…” I said. “He was pretty fucked up.” “Yeah. Big Jeff was holding him down and we were kicking him on the ground. Fucked him up real good.” “Check this out.” Frank pointed to the sole of his right shoe. There it was—on the white Adidas sneakers— an unmistakable stain. Not bright red, like in the movies, but a deep, mournful hue. With a smile, Frank raised an eyebrow and whispered, “Not my blood.” I was silent. I looked at Frank. I looked at Frank for a long time. I looked at Frank’s boldly gelled brown hair. I looked at his eyebrows, cocksure and convincing. I looked at his shiny pendant that fell beneath several baggy shirts
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that gave way to baggier jeans and the white Adidas sneakers with a touch of crimson. Everything about Frank spoke of youth, and confidence. I looked at I heard Cole mumbling the shoelaces, still white. One was untied. The other double knotted. I something like this now as looked at nowhere in particular. What was there to look at? I looked at the intentionally torn sleeves of Chaser lay in the grave. Frank’s grey hoodie. I looked at the big bold silver watch on Frank’s He went on and on until right hand.
he had no fat words left.
I looked at Frank’s hand, and saw that it was trembling.
A FUNERAL—2003 Frank and Cole’s dog, Chaser, died when we were fourteen years old. Hit by a car. I guess there wasn’t anything anyone could have done. Or something like that. I was at the “funeral” the next day. It was a small funeral—just a few family members and then me. Frank was glaring at Sam the Stepfather the whole time. Sam was pretty much the archetypal asshole: little or no interest in the kids, and a shit-eating grin that seemed to advertise that his only reason for being there was to screw their mom. The grave itself was almost big enough for a small man. Chaser had been—was—a fat dog. The hole was already dug when I got there, so I didn’t help with that. Frank’s mom stood next to the grave. After a long silence, there was speech. “You could have done something, you know.” She was talking to Frank, but not looking at him. “Not here, mom,” Frank said quietly. “You could have done something,” she insisted. I just stood there, caught in the middle, between grave and mother. “Mom.” It was a command. Frank did not want to talk. “You could’ve done something. You could’ve watched him just a little bit more carefully. Why couldn’t you look after him just a little bit more?” I saw Sam the Stepfather thumbing at his mustache. “Mom. You don’t want to go there.”
“Yes, I do, goddammit. Your father and I always looked to you to be respons—“ “My father? Exactly which one do you mean? Because by my count now I’ve got about three dads. And Sam here, he’s a—” “Leave him out of this! Frank, at some point you need to start taking responsibility for your actions. You can’t just let him go running around in the street like that. There are rules—” “Oh, yes. And that means so much coming from you.” “Do not talk to your mother like that. You will not…” And so they went on and on. I tried to remember something about funerals. I’d only been to a few funerals, but I didn’t feel like they were good places to argue. I thought I’d try to help. “The car came up so fast I don’t know if there was anything Frank could have done.” Silence. Frank’s mom liked me—I was her favorite of all the brothers’ friends—but she didn’t like me taking sides. “He shouldn’t have even let him go out there in the first place, in the middle of the street,” she said. “He was just a dog,” said Frank. Sam the Stepfather shoveled a bit of dirt on Chaser’s lifeless form before handing the shovel to Frank and pointing to the grave. Cole stood next to the grave. He hadn’t said anything the whole time. And he was probably the one who loved Chaser most. I suddenly remembered the countless times he had called out to his dog as “Fatty!” or “Pooch,” at times even breaking into an affectionate, freestyle mumble of “Chubbers! Chubber-wubber-chubby-wubby-tubby…” I heard Cole mumbling something like this now as Chaser lay in the grave. He went on and on until he had no fat words left. “Tubby-wubby-fatty-batty-chubberswubbers…” SUMMER SNOW—2002 I don’t even remember whose idea it was. But it was late at night and we had played enough video games for the next century. It was a sleepover at Cole’s dad’s house. His dad was cool. He let as many friends come over as the brothers wanted. Cole’s dad had a name like Joe or Jim or Jeff. He had passed out hours
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before next to a bunch of bottles in front of the television. We could do whatever we wanted. So we laughed. “Your dad’s an alcoholic,” I said. Just to say something. “What’s that?” Frank asked in mockignorance. “Someone who watches too much TV.” “That’s impossible.” A rare moment of silence. We were in Cole and Frank’s bedroom. Moonlight entered through the window. It seemed out of place. We climbed out of the window like princes. There were no plans for that night. At thirteen, we were at an age where midnight was still magical. “Where are we going?” Cole asked. “Nowhere.” Frank said. But Frank had an idea. He whispered something to Cole. Cole climbed back through the bedroom window, and came out of the bathroom window. He was holding as many toilet paper rolls as he could carry. We walked down to the 7-11 first. Even Slurpees were an act of rebellion at midnight. We all got half cherry and half coke, with coke on the bottom. I spilled a little bit of the cherry part on my shoe. Someone knew where we were going, and we found our way to a blue house. This house was in a part of the suburbs where all the houses look the same—even more the same than where we were coming from. There were two big trees in front of the blue house. It was on the corner where everyone could see. Frank tried to grab all the toilet paper from Cole. “Take a chill pill, psycho,” Cole protested. “You can’t have all of it,” Frank said as he pushed a few white rolls out of Cole’s hands. They rolled towards the middle of the street. I remember picking one up. Frank was having fun now. He was running in circles around Cole with a role of toilet paper, tying him up like a mummy. “You idiot!” Cole whispered. “You’re going to wake him up.” “Wait,” I said. “Look there, in the window. I think I see something in the blinds.” The blinds looked like they had shifted for a moment. We stood there under the streetlight, perfectly still.
Cole turned to Frank. “Does Squeaky have a dog?” “I don’t think so.” As if it were a coordinated movement, we all scrambled to pick up the toilet paper strewn across the street. In our hands, the toilet paper lifted off the ground and launched into the sky above the two trees like rockets. The toilet paper fell on those two big trees in front of Squeaky’s house in endless rolls. I had the best arm from baseball, and was thoroughly enjoying this advantage. Cole turned to me and said, “Think you can throw one over the house?” I thought I could. I took a full roll in my hands and squeezed it slightly to make it as compact as possible for the impending flight. Then I hurled it without any reservations. I could. I could throw one over the house. I could throw two or three or twenty over the house. And I did. This summer snow fell for maybe half an hour before the little clouds tired and collapsed on the pavement in exhaustion. After our breath began to settle, inspiration came to me. I turned to Frank and said, “Should we knock?” He smiled back and said, “Don’t you think it’s kind of early?” It was at least two in the morning by that time. I gave it some deep thought. I shook my head and looked from brother to brother. “Let’s give ’em a little wake up call.” We were filled with hysterical, muted laughter. Somehow, we made it to the door and knocked deliriously. Then we ran into the night, only looking back to laugh. Sound chased us away. I heard incessant barking and saw a small dog clawing at the window. Just as we turned the corner of the next street, I looked back once more and saw a fat man who vaguely resembled Squeaky waddling after us in very few clothes. He was yelling something. I couldn’t make out what it was except that it was in that painfully high pitch like his son. RESERVED SEATS—2001 Cole didn’t want to see the movie. He said it was a little kids movie. But he went anyway, just to “show us how stupid it would be.” It was the midnight premiere for the first Harry Potter movie. The brothers and I were 12
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years old. A lucky age. Anyway, we got to the theater two hours early to buy the tickets. The theater was empty when we walked in. Nobody wanted to wait two hours. Fortunately, I had my backpack with me. We always stuffed it full of candy and soda before movies. I also used it for school so I had left some paper in there. Then I had an idea. I knew what we had to do. We can reserve the seats, I thought. We can make signs. I walked over to the three best seats in the theater, middle and center, and took out three pieces of paper and one sharpie. We argued over what to write on the paper for a few minutes, eventually settling on an official looking-scrawl that read: RESERVED BY ROXY MANAGEMENT That was the theater’s name. Roxy. I think Cole thought of that part. But it was my idea to leave signs. Frank tried to pretend afterward that the whole thing had been his idea. We wandered around our hometown for two hours before returning. When we came back, the theater was full. Every seat. A few people, fans of the book, were even dressed up in wizard costumes. A wizard in every seat. Except for three empty seats. We walked over to them. Frank turned to a woman next to the three seats. “Are these reserved for someone?” he asked. She shook her head. Frank shrugged and tore the signs off. We stashed them under our chairs. We watched the movie. Afterwards, Cole grumbled something about it being a little kids movie, but admitted that we had the best seats in the house. JOSTER—1999 We hated that town for its smallness. There was nothing to do, ever. The movie theater was too far away for bikes. And at ten years old no one had a car. A new kid moved into the neighborhood that summer. His name was Joster, and there was nothing normal about this kid. Joster was “retarded” or “hyper” or “psycho” or “special,” depending on whom you asked.
Cole decided that we should all be friends with Joster. We went to his house almost every day after school. Cole and Frank didn’t do homework, and I could finish it all during school. As soon as the final bell rang, we would pedal over to the house with the red door and toss our bikes across the front lawn. Joster had a mother—yes, even him—who seemed to be always present just behind his red front door. It would happen like this: four or five or six boys and scooters and bicycles all converging on Joster’s front door in search of something to do. Joster’s mother always answered the door. “Jossssssssstttttter!” his mother would yell in her strange drawl back into the empty house. “Your friends are here!” “Joster will be out in a second—” She’d always say next, but we were already gone, sprinting around the house to the back yard. “I call first!” Cole would yell. “I already called it!” Frank would say. By the time we got to the backyard our shoes and socks were already off and it didn’t matter who had called it. We all scrambled onto the trampoline at once. Joster is already on the trampoline. I don’t believe he has ever left it. The boys are circling around him on the trampoline and the backyard becomes a mess of flailing limbs. Joster smiles and leaps at the center of the circle. He might be happy. Below him, Frank is discussing his ridiculous attire: “Short shorts, short shorts, short shorts!” “Short shorts!” Cole echoes in a funny voice. Joster wears short shorts and long socks. He looks at me. He’s grinning like a retard. I hope he’s a retard. I pray to God he’s a retard. Joster is and always will be twelve years old. He is also the most singularly ugly person I have ever met. In fact it is uncomfortable to even begin to describe him. His trampoline is built with stronger steel, better stitching, larger triangles, tougher springs, and thicker safety pads. The frame is 35" high, and composed of 12 gauge galvanized steel. It has 100 heavy-duty 8.5" tapered bungee-like springs made from this galvanized steel. And then there are safety pads. Of course there are safety pads: 1 ½" thick and 12 ½" wide foam padding covered with UV protected vinyl and stitched with UV resistant thread. This
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high-quality competition style trampoline is perfect for the whole family, especially teens and pre-teens. How do I know all this? I read the tag. The trampoline is something to do, even if it is Joster’s trampoline. Even better if it is Joster’s trampoline. Joster has been jumping but now he’s coming back down to this world. “Cannonball!” Joster yells. He comes out of the sky in the fetal position, sending Frank and me into the air. “Psycho!” Frank mutters on his way down. “Take a chill pill, freak,” Cole says. “Hey you guys wanna see something?” Joster says. “OK, Joster,” we mumble “Look at my head.” Joster points with a finger whose existence strikes me as obscene. At the apex of Joster’s scalp, where the short brown hair curls to a point, there’s a small hole. It’s filled with scabs and skin scraps and appears to have been bleeding recently. “I picked it myself,” Joster explains. “With my fingernails. When I was bored. When my friends weren’t here.” Joster does something strange with his lips. He might be thinking. No one says anything for a moment. Joster does the strange thing with his lips again, and gives his head a cursory pick. “Yeee-haaaa!” he yells. Joster is jumping again. Sometimes, on really hot days, we’d start chanting with Joster. “Wet ramp! Wet ramp!” This meant putting the sprinkler under the trampoline and dancing in the air above the water. But we weren’t just there for the trampoline. We were there for Joster. We were there to see Joster jump like a maniac, fall off, and then just keep going. We were there to see if Joster would land on anybody. We were there to make fun of Joster’s “short shorts.” We were there to laugh at his long socks. We were there to watch him eat his own snot. We were there to watch him pick that small hole on the top of his scalp that he carved regularly with his long fingernails, in the way some people bite their nails. We were there to watch him fall off the trampoline and then flash that crazy Joster grin. We were there to remind ourselves that he was Joster and we weren’t.
A GAME—1997 Chaser had run to my house, which was about three blocks away. He had a bad habit of being a wandering dog. Cole and I chased him all the way there. We were eight years old and always chasing something. Chaser was hiding under the ping-pong table in my garage. It was a pretty shitty table, made of something between cardboard and wood, so that by now the corners were all warped. But it was cool underneath it—one of Chaser’s favorite spots. Cole wanted to play ping-pong. I always got bored playing ping-pong, but said whatever. The first game passed wordlessly. I won 11-2. “Let’s go again. You serve,” Cole said. I sighed. The first one had hardly been a game and this would not be any different. Cole was just no good at ping-pong. I tried to start a deep conversation as the second game began. I liked deep conversations. “So, what do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked. “I am grown up.” Cole was trying to focus on the game. “You know what I mean.” “You first.” I smashed the little white ball past Cole. As he scurried back to pick it up, I came up with a big answer. “When I grow up…I’m going to be a professional football player slash baseball player slash astronaut slash president…” Cole was focused on the game. He hardly even heard me. Then, suddenly, he blurted something out. “I’m going to be a plumber.” “Why? You want to clean up people’s…stuff? For the rest of your life?” “Plumbers make $200,000 dollars a year.” “No they don’t,” I said. “Who told you that?” “They just do. They get like $200 an hour.” “Maybe some plumbers. But probably the plumbers who make that much don’t even plumb. They just own the company or something.” “Well, I’m going to.” “I think you should think of something better.” Cole lost another game. This time the score was 11-3.
54 Exposé 2007–2008
“Again,” he said simply. It wasn’t a question. It was a command. We played again. “So,” I said. “Is there a plumber college or something?” “Of course. I have it all planned out.” Cole always had it all planned out. “I’m going to trade school. But you don’t need good grades to get in, so that’s why I don’t need to try in school until after middle school and high school. It’s my secret plan.” He didn’t have a plan, he had a secret plan. “I think that’s a stupid plan,” I said. I won another point. Cole didn’t say anything. “Wouldn’t you rather be an astronaut or something cool than a plumber?” I asked. Cole still didn’t say anything. His lips were shut tight in concentration. It was gamepoint now. And then he lost. Again. “Again,” He said and threw the ball back at me. “Your serve first.” “Don’t you think you should—” “You know what?” Cole yelled as he slammed his paddle on the table. “You know what?” I didn’t know what. “You know what?” he continued. “When you have your fucking space station on the moon—you know what—I’ll come up and plumb it for you. For $200,000 dollars.” I didn’t know what to say. Cole took Chaser and walked home. And standing there, alone in the garage at the ping-pong table, a thought crossed my mind for the first time. Maybe I should have let Cole win one game, just one game. THE BROTHERS—2007 The voice of a doctor snaps me back to reality: “Is there anyone from the Alden family here?” The doctor has just put on a clean white coat and combed his hair. Frank looks up at the doctor, and now the trembling is in his eyes as well. “I need to talk to you for a moment, son.” Frank walks into the doctor’s office. I watch the door close. I strain to hear what is being said inside, but the words are just beyond hearing. In the chair next to me, Ziggy is still too stoned to pay attention.
The door opens sooner than I expected. Frank starts to walk out. The doctor says something else to him. “Yeah,” Frank says, “Yeah. My mom’s right outside. I’ll talk to her.” I expect something to happen, but Frank is just walking toward the exit with measured strides and expressionless face. There’s just nothing there to see. I look for little hints— biting his lips, maybe, or nervous eyes, but—nothing. But then I see his hands. Everywhere else the volume is turned down, but his hands are falling in and out of fist shapes, trembling at every step. It looks like he is trying to hold something that keeps just slipping through his hands. I wonder if I should get up, ask him what the doctor said. Everyone in the room is watching Frank walk. This whole time I’ve never noticed how crowded the waiting room is. It’s such a long walk to the exit. Frank finally reaches the door, and almost exits into the hallway when his shaking hand, as if it can no longer stand shaking, leaps from his side and punches a huge glass hospital window. It’s one of those hospital windows with the criss-crossed lines and extra thick glass so people can’t hear babies crying and stuff on the other side. It’s the sort of glass that’s foggy on the other side when you look through. It’s the kind of glass that looks like it might not even be glass at all. The glass doesn’t shatter—but I like to imagine that it does.
55 Exposé 2007–2008
Notes from the Authors Peter Bernard The initial spark for this essay came from the fact that, essentially, all of the readings regarding “The Kreutzer Sonata” that were discussed in class did not choose to address the fact that the story is, indeed, a frame narrative, and instead focused upon Pozdnyshev, or Tolstoy’s own interpretation of his own story, or the public response to the story. Thus, I wanted to look a little closer at the art with which this story is wrought; and when I further noticed that “Ariadna” is a frame narrative as well, I decided that a comparative approach to the usage of frame narratives between two stylistically very different authors might prove interesting. I think that, ultimately, it did, and I feel that, generally speaking, if one looks closely at the craft put into literature, one may uncover things that, regardless of what the author may personally think or say outside of the tale, lend the tale depth, and make the experience of reading it a more enjoyable one.
Tess Hellgren Long before my Expos assignment, I was hooked by Mumbai. Having already read novels about the city and taken a seminar on Contemporary India, I devoured the assigned reading and was excited to launch into my paper with what I felt was a wealth of knowledge. After a few nights writing and rewriting in library seclusion, I emerged confident with my eleven pages, proud of the work I had produced. And then I went to Mumbai. During a summer month of volunteering and traveling in India, I miraculously found myself able to visit the city about which I had written, the city that had intrigued me for so long. It was an amazing experience. When I returned to my paper with fresh eyes, ready for another round of revision, it was incredibly humbling. After seeing Mumbai myself, exploring its markets and temples and office buildings, the distant, academic tone of my paper seemed inappropriate—who was I, to presume that I could type out an objective black-and-white statement on such a vibrant city? My trip to Mumbai brought the city to life for me in a way no amount of distant research ever could, making me realize how much more I have to learn about the city and the forces that shape it. Writing and editing this paper has been an exciting and eye-opening process. While it may never do justice to the complexity of its subject, this essay is at least my sincere effort to explore and understand a piece of the remarkable city that is Mumbai.
56 Exposé 2007–2008
Noah Hoch Writing this essay was a lot like being given a big toy chest. Intimidating? Yeah. But chockfull of possibilities calling for attention. See, there were two major obstacles to overcome in unlocking this potential: mining through lots of outside material while keeping two different versions of the same story in mind, and the editing process. When I opened this toy chest, there were a ton of fun, shiny ideas to pick at, and I had a few options for what to do with them. I could take all of them out and try to play with each of them, or I could take my time, pulling out a few, but only the best, most fun ones. They were both tantalizing options. If I dumped out all the ideas there’d be no way I’d miss the ones with kung-fu grips and action kicks—you know, the exciting ones. But that would also mean there would be ideas lying about with missing arms, legs, or heads—incomplete and far less entertaining. Plus, I’d have to put them all back—there’d be a long clean up process and that means negotiating less time to play. If I took my time in deciding which ideas I’d toy with right away, then I’d be able to give them my full attention once they were out. Then I’d really get my playtime. And I like my playtime, so that’s what I did. That meant skimming all the extra-textual literature without making notes and then making a decision about which sources seemed most fruitful. But, even after thoughtful consideration, once those ideas were out of the chest there was a lot of responsibility to treat them right. They were the best of the best, and I didn’t want them to end up like the reject ideas—missing heads and arms and such. So came the editing process. It was learning how to get the most fun out of my ideas. It wasn’t enough just to have them out, strewn across the floor. I needed to set them up and position them so that a logical and escalating storyline would emerge. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. My preceptor was a terrific supervisor. She’d let me play and try to first discover for myself the optimal positioning of the ideas, but give me a nudge in the right direction when I got stuck or couldn’t see the layout from a broader perspective. Collaborating with my preceptor and even fellow classmates made me appreciate the importance and rewarding sensation of editing. Playing with ideas is one thing, but if you can construct a narrative with them, it turns into the kind of play that work has always aspired to be—self-satisfying but also externally purposeful. Making my ideas more lucid and fluid meant other people would enjoy them too. In a way it was like making the toys that I saw so much potential in, come alive so that other people could enjoy them too. And I suppose that was the most successful idea I pulled from the chest—finding the power of play in writing.
57 Exposé 2007–2008
Bonnie Kavoussi After discussing the first draft with my preceptor, I realized that this essay would have to reach for more than any paper I’d written in high school. The analysis had to run deeper, prove something specific enough that it could genuinely be proven, and be interesting enough for a general audience to want to read it. The first line of action was rewriting my paper’s thesis. Through several drafts, it moved from the generic and obvious to something specific, concrete, and (hopefully) original. I finally had a thesis that could be proven, and was worth proving. The second line of action was revamping my analysis. After choosing better quotes to work with, I could finally dig into the quotes in a deep and meaningful way. My preceptor taught me to pay less attention to what is demonstrably being said, and more to grammatical structure and words that grab my attention. Even the smallest minutia, hidden in a normal-looking sentence, can be speaking to a much larger truth. My preceptor also told me to use several sentences for the most valuable quotes. In the first one or two sentences, I should call attention to what I’m about to analyze. Then, I need to interpret what the piece of evidence I’ve drawn out means, why it’s important, and how it ties back to my thesis— moving in a steady progression from small-seeming details to a broad and meaningful conclusion. Sometimes, it takes writing the paper first to pin down the right thesis. And sometimes, it takes writing a paragraph several times before reaching a truly deep level of analysis. This essay went through at least twenty drafts before being published here (over half of them were with the editor of Exposé last summer). So, my biggest piece of advice is to start writing and researching every paper early. It always takes fresh eyes to edit a paper well, and once the essay has been written, refining an argument doesn’t take much time—but it can make a paper infinitely stronger.
Tim Lambert One evening a long time ago I was staring off into space in the bright depths of Pusey, doing my best, and failing spectacularly, to think about nothing. I assumed I was alone. Gradually, though, I began to notice a faint, steady thumping from a few carrels down from mine. I walked over and found a gray-haired man banging his head repeatedly on the desk between two towers of books. “Excuse me, sir,” I said, “but what are you doing?” He did not look at me. He did not even stop hitting his head. He said one word: “Researching.” That was the last time I ever studied in Pusey. The next day I was walking to the Holyoke Center and I saw the same man sitting across from an even more haggardlooking fellow. They were playing chess. All the gray-haired man would do is move his king forward one space, then back one space, while the other took piece after piece. I stood there for maybe fifteen minutes until checkmate. Then the man dropped six crisp dollar bills on the table, picked up his king, tucked it in his breast pocket, and walked away. He was grinning. I don’t know who he was, and I never saw him again, but I wrote this essay because of him, and I guess I wrote it for him, too. Somehow I’m sure he’s still got his king. I just hope he’s still grinning.
58 Exposé 2007–2008
Scott Levin Even though this photograph was a static image, to me it had a great sense of movement. The photographer was running around snapping shots all over Havana, and the soldiers were marching in from the hills. I wanted to convey that sense of movement in my essay, that a photograph can live and breathe even 50 years later. My essay had two goals. I had both a story to tell and a point to make. I attempted to weave together a historical narrative of intrigue and an expository essay. I knew that I had to make the details from a stormy day in January of 1959 also back up an interesting thesis; that would be a goal worth striving for.
Elise Liu Writing is one of the most narcissistic things a person can do. Putting words to paper—and I mean paper, not just a word processor on a MacBook—is a boastful claim that your ideas matter, or, at the very least, that someone cares to read them. Writing for a class is perhaps the only exception to that rule, but I selfishly managed to make this paper about me, all the same. Struggling with my own self-image, I was searching for an excuse to examine how other women had dealt with theirs. Hence the otherwise inexplicable subject of the corset, which, outside of a cultlike following among tightlacing hobbyists, is little more than a relic today. My writing process reflected that attitude: I checked out half a dozen books anywhere I could find them, cursing Women and Gender Studies concentrators who had checked out The Beauty Myth before me, and discovering Gutman Education Library in the process; I read and absorbed without pausing to take notes, a technique I strongly advise against; I wrote a few pages that passed for a first draft in a furious all-night writing spree. My preceptor was generous enough to accept a final draft that was both several pages over the limit and several hours past due. I turned it in with a fancy illustrated cover and felt like I had given birth. I doubt that I will ever draw upon my now substantial knowledge of corsets, but I have no regrets. It was my utterly unfounded passion for my subject that sustained me through revision after revision, copy-editing, and source-checking—the tedious chores that turned my three a.m. scribbles into serviceable prose. It was this energy that bubbled up in my voice when I spoke to my preceptor, long-suffering roommates, and total strangers alike, not quite sure what I wanted to say but unable to shut up. Those conversations proved invaluable because they showed me where my arguments were glaringly wrong. For me, the secret to writing well is this: First, to write about what you love; second, to do it with enough wit, pluck, and poise so that, despite how much you have annoyed them with your blather, your friends eventually love it, too.
59 Exposé 2007–2008
Ian Thompson The idea for the story “Not My Blood” came while visiting someone in the hospital, like the first scene in the actual story. I was talking to a friend when I noticed, over his shoulder, an old woman holding a magazine but clearly listening to our conversation. I wondered what it must sound like to her, how much she understood. There was definitely some emotion in that conversation, but I doubt it meant anything to the old woman. She didn’t have any backstory. She didn’t know why we were there. She didn’t know anything about us. I tried to imagine how much I would have to tell her to explain this moment. I’ve always been amazed at how much information—how much “backstory”— is packed into every human interaction. So I began “Not My Blood” as one of these anonymous stories we witness everyday when we overhear pieces of a stranger’s life. It’s a simple story. Someone visits someone in a hospital. That’s it. It’s a moment in a stranger’s life. But how do we fill in the blanks? What do we need to know for this to become something more than a moment in a stranger’s life? That's where it got interesting for me. I found that in order to explain this moment, I needed another moment, and for that to make any sense I needed another one—and on and on down this chain of delicate moments until we are finally prepared to return to the present.
Arnav Tripathy I would like to start by thanking profusely all the wonderful teachers who have helped me get to this point. I have been particularly blessed with excellent English teachers since my middle school days, a trend which happily continued all throughout high school and my two semesters at college thus far. I’m rather fond of writing, although I never understood the prewriting-first draft-revision-final draft sequence or whatever it is that you’re always supposed to follow. I invariably begin an essay by sitting in my chair or, more commonly, lying around in bed for several hours and deciding on all the ideas that I like. This essay was of course no different, and I had a good deal of fun developing my ideas, as the concepts of the individual-versus-society and the Emersonian Over-Soul are two of my favorites. In any case, I then have to actually get around to writing down the ideas in question, but this stage is usually not too interesting. Revision in particular always seemed alien to me and I rarely, if ever, made any substantial changes to my work after completing it the first time through. The mandatory revision process in Expository Writing and Exposé was not hence precisely my cup of tea, but my preceptor and editor helped pull me through and I think the essay turned out pretty okay. I hope you like it.
Essays from the Expository Writing Program Harvard College | 2007â€“2008