Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Journal #7: The Land of No Man or Woman

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #7
The Land of No Man or Woman
To continue from the previous journal on the dangers of being grey, I want (or, instead, believe I should) examine the 'hermaphrodite.'
Technically, an organism is only a hermaphrodite if being both male and female (as opposed to one or, in the case of asexual reproduction, neither) is natural/normal/genetically encoded in the species. Therefore any human who exhibits both male and female sexual characteristics is not truly a hermaphrodite; this word is better applied to snails and worms. However, this is the word most people are familiar with--as opposed to intersexual, undefined, etc.--and this is the word Foucault uses, so this is the word that I will use. There is also a good etymological reason to employ this word, which I will get to later.
As Foucault observes in 'The History of Sexuality,' being a hermaphrodite was once considered a crime. Most criminals are defined by an action: murderers have murdered, thieves have committed theft, rapists have raped. Those with both sexualities differ: their crime is being born the way they were, and you'll notice that "being born" is in passive voice and therefore not an action. Thus the hermaphrodite is in the unfortunate position of being punished for something outside of his/her[1] control. They live in the community of the grey and, barring today's frequent surgical solution, have not been able to choose. They live in twilight, between the two exclusive camps of the gendered society, and borderlands are no-man's-lands.[2]
Foucault explains extensively how this position has become that of an unwelcome outsider, so I will not go into this in detail. My interest is in what we can learn from it.
  1. Choosing one side or the other of a debate is not always the only option; in fact, it is not always an option at all.
  2. I think that if we could hear what some hermaphrodite individuals have to say, we could learn a lot from a person viewing things from both perspectives, or neither.

The origin of the word hermaphrodite is interesting: the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, named Hermaphrodite, has come to the edge of a pool. In the pool is a nymph, who is immediately besotted with him. Here the narrative splits: either they make love so passionately that they fuse into a single being, or he rejects her and she prays to the gods that they never let him leave her, and her wish is granted by, again, fusing them into a single being that goes by his name. Thus the origin of the word demonstrates the fusion of two perspectives instead of an alien third.

Finally, biological historians of yore posited that humans were originally two-headed, four-armed, four-legged, two-sexed people--hermaphrodites--who were split apart somehow into two distinct (single-headed, four-limbed) sexes. This was used to support heterosexuality--sex and love were meant to bring two people back into this original being--but, interestingly, it created a privileged class of hermaphrodites who could see from two perspectives.


1] Notice the hybridity of "his/her" over the choice of "it" (which is objectionable for other reasons as well).

2] The play on words was unintentional but apropos, so I kept it and have put it in the title.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Journal #6: The Paralyzing Grey

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #6
The Paralyzing Grey
In Anna Deavere Smith's "Twilight: Los Angeles," a character who calls himself Twilight plays an important role. He exists only at the end, and describes himself as a liminal figure, one who walks in limbo, one who walks between day and night. He says that he comes from night because his skin is black, and he gives positive connotations to that darkness. However, he also says that his people must move into understanding and enfranchisement, into the illumination of the day. Being ahead of his time and ahead of his people, he is trapped between night and day. Thus he calls himself Twilight.
It is common wisdom that being part of two entities is essentially the same as being separate from both. Witness Aesop's fable of the Bat: in the war between Animals and Birds, the Bat tries to be friendly with both sides and ends up the enemy of each, henceforth banished into the night. From each side you are branded for fraternizing with the enemy and are labeled a traitor: from each you are an outsider.
Bill Watterson's Calvin observes a similar phenomenon. When his morality and opinions are clear and distinct--in his words, black and white--decisions are simple because you avoid the black and stick to the white. Further knowledge about the issues, he worries, creates areas that are grey, and he claims that grey paralyzes. The choice is no longer clear and decisions become difficult. Too much grey, and decisions become impossible, or, at best, random. Calvin of course prefers the fairy tale of black and white morality over the more realistic grey, but the reader has likely come too far into the grey to turn back.
Los Angeles is captured in this limbo in Smith's play: it belongs both to the first world and the third world. The internal frictions erupted into riots, essentially a civil war, and in this war morality was coated with a grey fog. The rioters were undoubtedly repressed and suffred injustice in the unfair trail of Rodney King, and so their roar is understandable. Their response, however, overflowed justifiable bounds: the violence and destruction that came to the Vietnamese community and to innocent passers-by, such as the beaten and abandoned truck driver, was obviously wrong. On the other hand, many of the people who considered themselves innocent victims were not so innocent--their lifestyles allowed and even necessitated the existence of a repressed lower class. The city was thus striken with grey, with moral complexity: blame cannot easily be assigned and restoration may not even be desirable.[1] Los Angeles is caught in twilight.
I believe that there are ways to live in twilight successfully, but I also acknowledge that it does not at first glance appear to be the most attractive of real estate. The ability to see from multiple perspectives sometimes makes defining yourself difficult and can complicate decision-making. I do hope that it is ultimately possible to reconcile black and white; if not, borderlands will also be no-man's-lands.
1] Restoration, as in a return to the previous status quo. The repression and imbalance of the former situation is not something to which return may be desirable.

Journal #5: Retro-writing Origins in Light of Shklovsky

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras
Journal #5
Retro-Writing Origins in Light of Shklovsky
[Comment: Plot spoilers of Wicked, the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Casino Royale follow.]
Some characters have reached legendary--perhaps even conventional--status in the modern public consciousness: Darth Vader, Superman, Batman, the Wicked Witch of the West, James Bond. There are others that are perhaps older and more lasting, such as Robin Hood, Frankenstein, Dracula, and their kin. However, I select these five for very specific reasons: within the last half-decade, movies or books have been released that detail the origins of these iconic figures. George Lucas released the prequel trilogy to Star Wars to explain the origin of Darth Vader and to remind people that Darth Vader is a tragic villian and not a stand-in for Evil. Batman Begins details the development of the Dark Knight to rejuvenate (and thus rewrite) the franchise. Wicked, by Gregory MacGuire, chronicles the life of the Wicked Witch of the West--from different points of view. Casino Royale introduces a new Bond actor and simultaneously introduces a new Bond, this one with a history. I have not seen the new Superman, but I suspect it's similar.
To me, the real treasure of these is not just the new perspective gained, though this is certainly an important part. The best part is to see the iconic elements that make up these characters slowly emerge. The end of The Attack of the Clones gives us the loss of Anakin's hand and the beginnings of his cyborg identity, which culminates in his finally donning the mask at the end. Vader's transformation is rushed, but in Wicked the elements slowly drop into place--first the crystal ball, then the slippers, then the hat and broom, then the castle, then the monkeys. Similarly, Casino Royale only gradually introduces these elements: the 007 status, the Aston Martin, the tuxedo, the martini, the distrust of everyone, the famous introduction, and the theme music.
This only works, of course, because the audience already recognizes these iconic elements and anticipates their arrival. As in Aristotle's tragedy, the audience knows how it's going to end; the enjoyment comes from seeing the process. The re- or retro-writing of origins alters our understanding of the character and thus surprises us. But it also works in an opposite way; the gradual introduction of the props and characteristics we recognize is a re-assertion of the familiar; at first, we are slightly uncomfortable with the knowledge that the character before us is so different than the character we know him (or her in the case of the Witch) to be. Thus I was slightly uncomfortable with Casino Royale because the look and feel of the film is so entirely different: Bond was sentimental, committed to Vesper, and not a super-spy at all. In the last scene, though, all of the required elements return--the suit, the callousness, the introduction, and the them music--to satisfy me that, yes, this is a Bond movie. Thus while Shklovsky[1] is correct that art defamiliarizes, it also satisfies when it confirms, and it is most effective when it combines these two techniques.
1] This does seem like name-dropping, I know. Shklovsky is a thinker we frequently discussed in class, so I felt it was fine in this assignment to drop him in without preamble. Shklovsky was of the Russian formalist school of literary criticism, and he suggests that literature defamiliarizes the reader; by presenting the reader with a new and shocking perspective on a familiar object or institution, Shklovsky argues that literature changes our understanding of the world and "pricks" our consciences.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Mid-February Update

Well, I've been ill, busy, and away for awhile. I hope to soon get back to the journals. In the meantime, though, I'd like to say I finally found a book I was looking for--The Science of Harry Potter--and I hope to write a review or something about it soon.

That is all.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

Journal #4: Metaphysical Poets and the Chimæras of Perspective

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #4
Metaphysical Poets and the Chimæras of Perspective
Samuel Johnson, in his section on Cowley in Lives of the English Poets, characterizes metaphysical conceits as "the most heterogeneous ideas ... yoked by violence together," and he means it to be derogatory. Even though I have expressed an interest in mixed wit, concerning the comparison of both sound and sense, I must join T. S. Eliot in defending Donne and the other metaphysicals; the metaphysical conceit has given me great pleasure in the past and I think it is unworthy of this derision.
To my mind, the metaphysical conceit operates as a metaphor or analogy: the speaker uses an easily understood idea to illustrate the idea the speaker wants the audience to understand. The primary difference between a metaphysical conceit and a simile is that, in the conceit, the two parts are not 'like' or 'as' each other--or, at least, not on the surface. It requires a certain intellectual effort to understand the connection. This, perhaps, is what Johnson dislikes: that the effect is unnatural, not automatic, and difficult.
I would argue that hard work reaps better rewards. Not only is the reader flushed with the satisfaction of having solved some wrinkle in 'Elegy 19'--which may be reward in itself--but the reader is given new perspective. For instance, Donne dances on the edge of heresy in Holy Sonnet 18; he likens the church to an adulterous wife and says the most adulterous church is best. A simpler metaphor would be saying that a church is like a [holy] host: the more open to guests, the better. But this will tell us nothing new; only when he changes the understanding of 'open', and plays with the idea of the Church being Christ's bride do we get this new perspective. The idea of ownership of conquest of a woman is challenged in this sonnet--if a woman is like a church, then she cannot be owned by any one person, or, for that matter, any person at all. Thus the metaphysical conceit, in its complexity, forces the puzzler to re-examine those relationships hitherto assumed to be 'simple.'
The heterogeneous nature of the ideas give yet another advantage, and that is fascination. The Greeks had a monster called a Chimæra[1] which operated on the same principle: a lion, a goat, and a dragon were all bundled violently and uncooperatively into a single beast. The Greeks had many similar creatures--centuars, harpies, sphinxes--and the Egyptians worshipped others--Anubis, Horus, Hathor. These beings are powerful because they are memorable, and they are memorable because they are unnatural and shocking: we cannot tear them from our mind. The metaphysical conceit is similar. The very unnatural, at times heretical, union of ideas fascinates us, and we find that we are unwilling to let go until we have figured out exactly how they work. Thus, I remember Donne's poetry and forget Johnson's. The metaphysical conceit provides both a changed perspective and a fascination that gives it more power than a simile.
[1] I use the 'æ' intentionally to emphasize the conjoining of disparate elements. This is less 'sense' and more 'sound' (or sight): I could also say that it is an æsthetic decision, but that would just be silly.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Journal #3 Dancing with the Devil: An Affront to Samuel Johnson

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #3
Dancing with the Devil: An Affront to Samuel Johnson
I have been toying for some time with an idea for a short fiction prose piece. It concerns my distrust of the high school/university conception of 'dancing,' my dislike for the promiscuity of my generation, and my hatred of/addiction to Justin Timberlake's "Sexyback." It would be entitled 'Dancing with the Devil.'
The premise of the story is as follows: A university student, female, attends a house party in which there is a fair bit of drinking and a fair bit of dancing. Teh dancing is in a modern sense, lacking choreography but full of sexuality. During the course of the evening, the young woman meets a young man who is very physcially attractive, very well dressed, very courteous, and a very, very good dancer. They dance for the course of the evening, and by the end of the piece the reader comes to understand (if I do the job right) that her new dance partner is the Devil himself come to seduce her of her soul.
Clearly this follows a sort of Christian morality which I would develop and complicate throughout the piece. In truth, a summary of it does not do justice to what I envision: characters would at times be characterized diabolically and at times angelically, largely because the morality of such a situation is complex, balancing natural attraction and disrespect, harmless pleasure and true indulgence. The overall effect will hopefully be a mixture of fear, temptation, and disgust, in equal parts.
This would clearly be an affront to Samuel Johnson, who says that vice must always be represented as being completely unnattractive, which insults the intelligence of the reader and could lead the reader astray. After all, it's easy to then determine from fiction that things that seem attractive must be morally correct--after all, those things that are sinful are revolting.
In my opinion, sin should be represented in fiction for what it is: oft times seducing, oft times easy, oft times confusingly mixed with virtue. For that matter, virtue should be represented in fiction for what it is: oft times boring, oft time difficult or painful, oft times confusingly mixed with sin. And the moral of any narrative should, despite all of this, be that one should always follow virtue rather than vice. This will of course be a difficult task, since there is no guarantee that you will be rewarded for good behaviour in this lifetime (and, if you're not of the afterlife school of though, no guarantee of reward in the next). I actually am not sure how such a feat would be completed, but moving to that end seems more rewarding pedagogically than Johnson's medicine.
As an aside on promiscuity, C. S. Lewis has interesting thoughts on the matter in his 'Sexual Morality' chapter of Mere Christianity which are relevant, I think, to non-Christian religious and some secular views as well.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Journal #2: An Analysis of "True" and "False" Wit, and Amphibiousness

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #2
An Analysis of "True" and "False" Wit, and Amphibiousness
Joseph Addison defines 'true' wit as involving the resemblance of ideas (my mistress' breast is as white as snow--and as cold, too) and 'false' wit as operating on the resemblance of letters, syllables, words, or sentences (as in anagrams, doggerel rhyme, puns, or concrete poetry). He then defines mixed wit, which combines the two. This mixed wit is praised to some degree, called "more or less perfect" at one point, while at others I get the feeling that he prefers 'true' wit on its own, especially when regarding Cowley; however, it is the names of the wits and not their practitioners that interest me.
Addison seems to take a Platonic stance on truth in his discussion of wit. In reality, 'true' wit is hardly closer to truth than 'false' wit; false wit is not false because, as Sir Philip Sidney would say, what affirms nothing does not lie. What Addison is really trying to say is that he approves of the concordance of ideas more than he approves of the concordance of sounds or shapes. He thus attributes "true" to that of which he approves and "false" to that of which he disapproves. In a way reminiscent to Plato, he attributes goodness to truth and truth to goodness, and badness to falsehood and so forth. That, at least, is my take on it. Perhaps he considers something devoid of meaning to be false (and then I am upset to think of what his opinion of 'Jabberwocky' must be), but this is really a logical impossibility. Nonsense cannot be false (thankfully) just as it cannot be true.
This throws an interesting slant on "mixed" wit, belonging half of the time to falsehood and half of the time to truth, a sort of amphibian. I would think automatically that this is the best form of wit of all. However, in the connotation of wits' various names, mixed wit must fall below true wit. This, then, may be the source of the confusion I reas in Addison's article (whether the confusion should be attributed to Addison or myself is debatable and likely irrelevant): wit that uses both resemblance of idea and sound seems best and most skillful of all, but the names require that it is less desired than wit using resemblance of idea alone.
I, of course, prefer the amphibious nature of mixed wit. The amphibian, incidentally, is a useful symbol for many things; in some cases, Christ is represented by a mermaid, which is both human and piscean and thus amphibious, as a symbol of His being both human and divine. In my Religions of Native Peoples class, I learned that Inuit believe those who cross both halves of the world (defined by dualities in Inuit cosmology) have power, especially those raised as the opposite gender until puberty (which is socially acceptable in that culture). Mixed wit, like these others, should have a sort of power that a pure-bred with would not. Among other things, mixed wit is easier to remember.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Journal #1: A Response to Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 45

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimaeras:
Journal #1
A Response to Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 45
Having studied Astrophil and Stella before, and having written an essay on three of the sonnets, I thought I could take a look at Sonnet 45 in a less formal manner . . .
The speaker of the poem laments his inability to move Stella through his misery, even though a fictional account of the same situation brings her to tears. At the end he tries to bring both the "fable" and his own situation together in "the tale of me," though the reader does not get a sense that this is effective. This has interesting consequences as far as the role of poetry in society is concerned.
Plato devalues poetry on the grounds that it corrupts the truth. In Astrophil's case, this seems almost grounded. Stella is more taken with "fancy" than with "the very face of woe," with its overtones of Platonic truth. However, Astrophil tries to subvert this by becoming (presumably in the sonnet sequence itself) such a tale as the one she wept over and thereby winning her.
On a side note, it seems to me that Astrophil's premise is unfounded. The characters in the story Stella heard are described as "lovers." This tends to imply that they each love the other; in a case of unrequited love, like Astrophil's in the sonnet sequence, the parties involved are rarely called lovers. If Stella heard a story about Astrophil's situation, it would be along the lines of the following: "A man loved a woman who did not love him back. He was very sad and tried to make her love him, but she couldn't for whatever reason. [It would be false for her to return his advances when she didn't feel them herself.]" The conclusion I have tagged on may not have been very compelling to male readers at the time, but female readers at the time and any reader now will likely come to the same conclusion that I did. For this reason I think Astrophil is misguided.
What the sonnet really comes down to is the power of a story. This is reflected in Aristotle's Poetics on a very metafictional level. Aristotle refers to "Tale told by Alcinous"--the reference itself is an indication of the power of story-telling--in which Odysseus is moved to tears by the lyer-player, by which he is recognized--an indication of the power of art within a "Tale." I think that Sir Philip Sidney was aware of this or a similar story when he wrote Sonnet 45; I have no specific reason for thinking this, other than that the coincidence seems too unlikely.
Sonnet 45 does have a sense of Odyssey about it, in its reference of seas, storm, and ruin. Further, Astrophil seems to be trying to reach a destination--Stella's heart--that constantly eludes him. Unfortunately for Astrophil, I don't think Stella will wait as Penelope did.

Journal Series: Introduction

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimaeras:
Journals in Literary Theory
In the course of writing these journals, I have chosen as a universal theme amphibiousness, including hybridity, duality, contradiction, conjoining, and assorted elements and ideas that spin off of these. I use a variety of symbols and make a variety of allusions, and this has also become an unofficial theme--the use of hopefully unexpected and uncomfortable comparisons to illustrate my point and challenge common-place conceptions. I also briefly challenge the assumptions that these symbols must only be symbols.
Though my journals were not intended to follow any particular pattern and the early ones were not written to feed into later ones (with the exception of #9 into #10), I have since traced a course of connection and thought through them, outlined here.
Journal #1, 'A Response to Sir Philip Sidney's Sonnet 45', though not on the topic of amphibiousness, establishes that art has some relevance to life, and it also reveals my interest in Renaissance poetry--ideas seen again in Journal #9. Journal #2, 'An Analysis of "True" and "False" Wit, and Amphibiousness,' privileges amphibiousness, the ability to thrive in both land and water, and thus begins the developing theme. Journal #4, 'Metaphysical Poets and the Chimaeras of Perspective', builds off of the effectivenes of mixtures by examining how metaphysical conceits are more successful than 'simple' metaphors, like similes. Journal #5, 'Retro-writing Origins in Light of Shklovsky', did not begin as a continuation of this theme, but ends so, in that the technique described works in two opposite and complimentary ways. Journal #6, 'The Paralyzing Grey', begins to explore the darker aspects of amphibiousness; drawing on the messy moral reality outlined in Journal #3, 'Dancing with the Devil: An Affront to Samuel Johnson', Journal #6 examines how living between two entities can lead to ostracism, confusion, and violence. Journal #7, 'The Land of No Man or Woman', examines hermaphroditism as something in 'the paralyzing grey' but also having the potential benefits of amphibious viewpoints. A similar track follows in Journal #8, 'Dual Selves and Berger's Women,' where Berger's observations on women's self-image are contorted to demonstrate the power of dualism. Journal #9, 'Sidney, Jameson, and Bakhtin: A Chimaeric Idea', tackles three literary theorists in a likely misguided attempt to reconcile their theories. This produces a problem, the solution to which is partially developed in the final Journal #10, 'Contraries Meet in One: Conjoined Twins as Symbols of Conflict Resolution.' Along the way, other topics, observations, and ideas develop alongside this master theme, but those are best left to fend for themselves...

A New Endeavour!


Recently, for a course in Literary Theory and Criticism, I was required to write a series of 10 journals responding to the readings and ideas presented in the course. I had a lot of fun with this assignment--less formal and academically rigourous than an essay but still getting into the meat of the matter--and decided, now that it has been graded and returned, to post it on-line.

I will post the Introduction and the First Journal tonight. After that I will post only one per day, and not every day.

The title of the collection is 'The Lives of Amphibians and Chimaeras: Journals in Literary Theory.'

I will try to post them exactly as I submitted them, largely as a restraint to my inclination to wander and to endlessly self-edit. I will, however, add basic bibilographical information for the texts I refer to. All of these are available in the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, the 8th edition.

Final note: I will not, unfortunately, be able to exactly match the typography of the originals. This is only relevant in that I will call attention to the word 'chimaera.' In my original, the 'ae' is the symbol which fuses the two. Unfortunately, I can't figure out how to get that symbol in Blogger. In Journal #4, I will be calling attention to this symbol. (Update: I discovered how to use 'æ' . It was really easy, actually. I cut and pasted from Word.)
Blog Widget by LinkWithin