Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Eliot: I Still Like Him, but We’re Not Speaking Right Now

Hands down, my absolute favorite author this semester is Katherine Mansfield. It was a tie between Mansfield and Eliot, but now I have deducted some points from Eliot for “Four Quartets.” Sometimes, I feel like I am not a good Literature person when I do not like the greats, but that does not change the fact that I still do not like them. Woolf is mediocre. Howard’s End was a little better. Eliot was awesome until now. My major problem with “Four Quartets” is that even with the extra reading, I do not think I understand it and apparently, I am not the only one. You (Dr. Sparks) said that it told you years to grasp and Brooks says the same. However, Brooks also says that even though scholars can explicate “Four Quartets” line for line, they still do not understand the whole. I do not understand why T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” is a classic if no one understands it, except Brooks. I am thinking of writing my masterpiece by making it intentionally elusive and including a ton of allusions. It might not sell, but I have no doubt that it will make the canon. People will read it and praise it forever and never feel like they understand it. In much the same way that people refer to a foreign accent or language, they will say, “I don’t know what Wiley said, but it sounds so good.”

There are many images in “Four Quartets” that Eliot reuses from other poems, such as aridity, dying things, the state of time, the king fisher, ether, seasonal changes, and Dante and Shakespeare references. So it must be essential to deftly understand the previous works before tackling this later one. However, even the meaning of these previous images change in “Four Quartets,” which adds ambiguity to an already ambiguous poem.

Since I cannot yet deal with “Four Quartets” as a whole, I will deal with it in parts like everyone else. I really like the following stanzas:

The chill ascends from feet to knees,The fever sings in mental wires.If to be warmed, then I must freezeAnd quake in frigid purgatorial firesOf which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

The dripping blood our only drink,The bloody flesh our only food:In spite of which we like to thinkThat we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Eliot begins this excerpt by mixing burning and freezing images in a confusion of the senses. He illustrates this picture of descent into hell, but this hell is simultaneously cold and hot. Maybe it is like a freezer burn. Then he says that the roses, the only beauty in hell and one of the things necessary for life, are the flames. This initiates a recurring theme of barrenness. I am actually surprised that with all of the Biblical allusions in “Four Quartets,” Eliot never mentions some of the famous once barren women in the Bible. These flames are not actually beautiful or life giving: they are the opposite of an earthly rose. This becomes clearer in the following line. He also illustrates a person breathing in briars. Just as oxygen is what roses produce, smoke is what flames produce. Concordant with this analogy, just as the roses give life, hells flames are an eternal death. However, I think that Eliot believes that in order to live, one must die. Similar to him saying “to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.” Thus, this flame might be a purging flame rather than a deathly one.

Eliot stresses that the flame is a purging one in the second stanza. He paints a primitive and even cannibalistic picture by having people drink blood and eat flesh. This is actually a reference to Communion and he expresses a viewpoint that I have long held about Communion (I think that might make me a genius, too.) He says that even though Christians are celebrating a resurrection, they do it by enacting a death—pretending to eat someone’s flesh and drink that person’s blood. Because it is Good Friday, everything is suppose to be kosher. When one breaks down the basic concepts of Communion, it sounds like some occult stuff to me. I understand that it is a symbol of sacrifice and that the sacrifice sustains and nourishes the person who is saved. That symbol still does not change the fundamental cannibalism.

To quote a famous heiress, “That’s hot!” —a burning freezing heat. My thoughts about these stanzas apply sporadically to other parts of the poem. There are moments, like the ones he explains in the Buirnt Norton, of epiphany and splendor. However, they are rare and short moments. I am just frustrated with Eliot right now. I still like him. I just choose not to like him right now and choose to belittle his craft as I did at the beginning of this journal because he is pissing me off. I want to be a true Klingon right now and scream “You have dishonored me!” then challenge him to a fight. However, my Vulcan side keeps reminding me how illogical that is. I will wrestle with “Four Quartets” some more and then make a new assessment. For now, Eliot and I are not cool.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oedipus in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse

Something that caught my attention in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is the language that Virginia uses to describe James and Mrs. Ramsey's relationship. One could easily forget the James is Mrs. Ramsey's six year old son and think that there is some kind of sexual tension between them. I thought that Woolf would extend the Oedipal complex throughout the novel. She does in a way, but I thought that it would be more prevalent. Other than this language in “The Window” the text loses all indication of the notion until “The Lighthouse.” In this last section, the rift between James and Mr. Ramsey is clear and James’s memories of Mr. Ramsey stealing Mrs. Ramsey’s attention still weighs heavily on his mind. This memory actually plays a major role in damaging his relationship with his father.

Just as with the contrast between Mrs. Ramsey and Lily Briscoe, there is a distinct contrast between Cam and James. These are the two youngest of the Ramsey children. Cam is described as “wild.” She is not shown much in the novel, but the reader knows some parts of her personality. For example, as a child she refuses to give William Bankes a flower for his lapel, she runs wildly past people without much regard for them, and the boar’s skull scares her. James on the other hand, as a child, is described by Mrs. Ramsey as the most sensitive of her children. They are able to share many moments because they are so much alike. He however, likes the boar’s head.

I noticed the contrast most when Mrs. Ramsey puts them to sleep by addressing them each in a distinctive manner. She tells Cam to ignore the skull and think of mountains, valleys, stars, antelopes, parrots, and gardens. This set of things really doesn’t match logically. Mrs. Ramsey pacifies Cam by freeing her imagination. Her speech here is described as “nonsensical.” She wants Cam to think of impossible combinations: parrots and antelopes, antelopes and bird nests, and maybe bird nests and women, women and art, etc. and she wants Cam to ignore the skull, which may be read as frighten patriarchy.

However, Mrs. Ramsey addresses her very sensitive son, James, in a very logical manner, much in the same way that Mr. Ramsey and Tansley address him. She says that the boar’s head is still there under the shawl even though it looks different. Then when he asks if they can go to the lighthouse the next day, she does exactly what she criticizes Ramsey and Tansley of doing: She gives James a dose of reality and kills his hope. Mrs. Ramsey gives into the dominance of patriarchy, thus going against her intuition and perpetuating the patriarchical institution.

So with patriarchy as the dominant theme, how does James’s Oedipal complex support or undermine patriarchy? I think that it supports it in that James thinks he owns his mother just as much as Mr. Ramsey does. It indicates that no matter how sensitive the son is, he is selfishly interested in continuing the patriarchy at a very early age. His way of perpetuating the patriarchy is to overthrow his father and to seduce his mother. So just like his father “James…stood stiff between her knees, felt her rise in a rosy-flowered fruit tree laid with leaves and dancing boughs into which the beak of brass, the arid scimitar of his father, the egotistical man, plunged and smote, demanding sympathy.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Cage the Insurgents!: Modernist Political Discourse

Sara Blair begins her chapter of The Cambridge Companion to Modernism by saying that Modernism’s “most notable—indeed, perhaps only—unifying feature was the attempt to transcend the political altogether” (Blair 157). However, even in this attempt to “transcend” is an inherent, almost unavoidable failure. In the purposeful absence, avoidance, or omission of a political stance is a political stance. As Blair continues, she supports my premise that endeavoring to move beyond political debates is yet another political position that inevitably engages in an ongoing political discourse. She mentions the right wing fascism of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound, for which Pound was incarcerated for treason (161) and the anti-Semitism found in T.S. Eliot (160). She also brings up liberals James Joyce, H.G. Wells, and D.H. Lawrence, who fought for the proletariat by making them the central to their works (164). Each author was unable to “transcend the political” because he or she wrote with the ink of his or her own personal experience and political bias.

However, E.M. Forster seems to express this transcendence best in “What I Believe.” He asserts that the importance lies in people rather than politics, relationships rather than republic. He accurately predicts what can come of loving a democracy, which is a governmental structure (not the actual government of a particular country). A reader in 2008, may not be able to avoid a continuous echo, voiced with the drawl of Texas twang, of “War on Terrorism” and “Spread of Democracy,” while reading Forster’s comment, “Democracy is not a beloved Republic really, and never will be” (Forster 167). Well, Forster is absolutely right. Democracy is to government as MLA is to paper format. Democracy is to the United States as blue print is to an architect. According to Forster, democracy is even less deserving of allegiance than country is.

Now, with this devotion to a blueprint, we hear the screams of “extremist anxieties of ‘liberty,’” just as were heard by Ezra Pound circa World War II. He promoted such fallacies as “[A]re you the arsenal of democracy or of judeocracy?” and “[W]hat races can mix in America without the ruin of the American stock, the American brain?” (Blair 161). Woolf would equate these “extremist anxieties” to fear and would point out yet another appearance of the repetition of history though the voice of the Owl when he says, “[P]lus ├ža change plus c’est la meme chose” (L. Woolf 148).

Pound seems to have been calling for a cage to protect “the American stock.” Mussolini and Hitler seem to have been calling for a cage, of sorts, for the same reason. The Elephant, in “Fear and Politics: A Debate at the Zoo” though he claims to have no position, having “transcend[ed] the political” (Blair 157), also calls for a cage for mankind and reveres its protection (L. Woolf 151). The dangers of the wild are much too risky and undoubtedly degenerative, much like the dangers of racial mixing and government heterogeneity. This “somber, meditative melancholy” (138) of certain caged animals such as those of the Zoological Gardens and the “old gentlemen” (137) of South Kensington is an indicator of achieved civilization, in Woolf’s satire. These animals, humans included, should be confined and made powerless and protected from the powerful, which relieves them of fear. The absence of this fear allows for an environment conducive to wonderful debates, at least until this “somber, meditative melancholy” state grows into “homicidal irascibility” and the gentlemen “go mad and kill their wives” (138). How’s that for civilization?

Woolf’s satirical answer to the world’s problems is to cage all of the fascists, communists, imperialists, colonialists, Sunnis, Shiites, Hutus, Tutsis, insurgents, Islamic extremists, Catholics, Protestants, etc. because none of these individuals and groups can control themselves or their need to conquer or, as Woolf would claim, their fear of being conquered.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Thoughts on Eliots The Waste Land

Eliot does a lot with The Waste Land. The footnotes in the Norton Critical Edition are a hindrance to Waste Land virgins. The footnotes become the focus rather than the poems and are very distracting, although, the footnotes and Eliot’s notes do make it evident that Eliot was writing for a very restricted audience. Even though one can read and on some level comprehend The Waste Land without critical help, most of the allusions would be lost on one who lacks scholarship and critical help. That parts of the poems are written in German, French, Italian, Sanskrit, and Latin indicates that Eliot wrote The Waste Land for a very select target audience. This wasn’t for the Leonard Basts of his world. Once again, Eliot’s poems are fairly small but have the density of lead. However, I do miss the creative language of his earlier poems. For instance, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot designs memorable lines such as “like a patient etherized upon a table,” “Streets that follow like a tedious argument,” “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” “When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,” and “…I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker.” The Waste Land does not have the same line per line impact as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” however, it does have a couple memorable lines:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? (71-72)


But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear. (185-186)

Aside from language, I enjoyed the parallels and repetition of images. I probably enjoyed these devices because I found them useful for interpreting the collection of poems. For example, in “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot says, “Unreal City,/ Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/ A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/ I had not thought death had undone so many” (60-64). The footnote ties this as a reference to Dante’s Inferno, but the reader can sense the devastation from the line itself and from a later mention of London. At the very end of the collection of poems, in “What the Thunder Said,” Eliot draws from a popular nursery rhyme singing, “London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down” (426). Considering the earlier image, of the bridge beginning crowded with people, with the later image of it falling, one understands that Eliot is communicating a massive disaster. That the disaster is spiritual comes from other recurring images.

As for the hopeful redemption that you, Brooks, and Headings see in “What the Thunder Said,” I could not see it until Brooks points it out “In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/ Bringing rain (393-394). This is the only image that I consider hopeful in The Waste Land and it took me many readings and a little critical coaching to notice that diminutive indicator.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mansfield and Woolf: Catfight in Modernist Literature

The fluctuating rivalry-respect and backbiting-friendship between Mansfield and Woolf disturbs me. It is something that I notice now between women. In college, especially at HBCU’s, the competitive nature among women is obvious in the attire. It seems that there is this ongoing struggle for male attention and slight antagonism towards other competitors/females. Tyra Banks has been campaigning against this Naomi Campbell type mentality—which views other females in her field strictly as a threat and aims to destroy their careers—for years. There is something about this society that makes it easy for women to view other women as competitors and for two women who are successful in the same profession and rare in some way to duke it out with each other.

The same is true during the Feminist and Civil Rights Movement. According to some accounts I’ve read of women who were involved in both simultaneously, there was always a prompting to prove one’s value. In organizations like SNCC, SCLC, etc., there was a necessity for women to ban together against sexist men who held front seats in the Civil Rights Movement for other men. Then when these women would attend meetings regarding the Feminist Movement, the men there would prod them for theoretical arguments about the state of women and the female attendees would be drawn into competition with each other. Even if only at times, Mansfield and Woolf bought into this verbal mud wrestling match. In the same way that many men enjoy seeing a “catfight,” I suggest that certain men enjoyed seeing Mansfield and Woolf in a word-fight, simply because as Mansfield and Woolf continued to devalue each other, it decreases both of their chances for lasting success.

Both were, as successful women writers, rarities in their field. They were kindred spirits when they were together. Their work contains very similar ideas. However, for some reason they never really gained each others loyalty. They never tried to help each other develop new Modernist writing techniques: they just kept a constant fluctuation between colleagues and enemies. Why does this fluctuation persist, even after the intimate conversations they have?

The men in their lives could very well be a prime factor in the discordance between Mansfield and Woolf. Near the beginning of their relationship, Clive and Maynard instigate derision between Mansfield and Woolf: “Virginia was accused by Clive of ‘having come inimitable up to sample’ by repeating some spiteful Garsington gossip of his and Maynard’s to Katherine” (384). There is also “Kot—who told Virginia that Katherine’s ‘lies & poses’ had proved too much for him” (384). Needless to say, this led to Virginia calling Garsington the “underworld” and Katherine renaming Virginia and her friends “the Bloomsbury tangi” (385).

There is a constant evolution and de-evolution in their friendship, especially on the part of Mansfield. Sometimes Woolf is “immensely important” (388) in Mansfield’s life and other times Katherine pretends she loves one of Virginia’s fiction pieces when speaking with her but berates it to others (385). Virginia seems to have been able to control her jealousy by allowing it to manifest only with Vanessa (388), but Katherine took to public critical disparaging of Virginia’s work, despite the similarities in intention and themes between the two writers. So I guess my question is why is competition necessary among women, especially when there aren’t many women succeeding in a given field in the early twentieth century?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Longwinded Circumlocution, Verbosity, and Tedium in Monday or Tuesday

I’m glad to know that Woolf was just “experiment[ing]” (Kemp 66) when she wrote this nonsense. Reading Monday or Tuesday splashed cold water on any excitement I had to read Virginia Woolf’s novels. I keep trying to come up with ways to explain why I dislike these short stories so much, but the characteristics that I dislike about them are the same characteristics that Sandra Kemp praises.

I’m starting to feel like Margaret in Howard’s End. If Woolf wanted rhythm, she should have composed a song. If she wanted fragmentation, she should have stuck to painting. Even The Times Literary Supplement said that the stories “‘aspire to the condition of music’: it cannot reach it” (66). The stories seem like a fun experiment and that it is a great writing exercise, but Woolf was correct when she described them as “wild outbursts of freedom, inarticulate, ridiculous, unprintable mere outcries” (63). She said that they are “inarticulate, ridiculous” and “unprintable.” I’ll just say I believe her and leave it at that.

Another issue I have with Monday or Tuesday is that the stories aren’t about anything. I even have trouble watching “Seinfeld” because it drags on and on about nothing until I feel like I’ve aged three years in a thirty minute time span. The same applies for Woolf’s short stories. Kemp intimates, “They are rarely about anything in the conversational sense” (63). Literature that isn’t conversational is like Monopoly money—it does have some value, but one still can’t take it to a real bank. At the end of the day, what about Woolf’s short stories can one take to the bank? What can one value, practice, or appreciate about it? Maybe some of my classmates can help me find the literary value in Monday or Tuesday. As of now, however, I would tweak the The Dial’s review to say that “she has mastered starting anywhere and arriving” nowhere (66).

Woolf also experiments with fragmentation in Monday or Tuesday, which adds another annoyance and “inarticulate[ness]” to the text. Monday or Tuesday is filled with incomplete thoughts, phrases, and perspectives and sudden deceptive shifts in perspective. Her fragmentations are meandering boxcars of thought that reject the tradition of the full train of thought: thus, they try to function as isolated boxcars but lack locomotion. Ergo, they lose function and become a hindrance. Kemp says that “Woolf used the stories to introduce perceptions that didn’t obviously lead anywhere, or become part of a larger unit” (62). This makes me think that Woolf is selling ideas rather than plots, drama, comedy, etc. Kemp also compares Woolf to Eliot saying that they both “present the boredom, the horror and the reality of the everyday world rather than to construct a fictional one” (63). The problem with this comparison is that these grand ideas are not put into boring, everyday circumstances like Eliot, who gracefully and dexterously twines verbose into gold; they are instead buried under boring, pointless, dribble in Monday or Tuesday. Who wants to find a cupcake in a garbage dump? Even if the cupcake is found, no one would want to eat it. Presentation is everything and Woolf wraps her ideas in garbage. I don’t think this is what Woolf meant when she spoke of “‘rubbish reading’” (64) but this is definitely what I think of.

However, in Monday or Tuesday there is the idea of crossing genre lines. This is clear but is still unappealing. The only thing reading Monday or Tuesday has done for me is illustrate how writers tried to incorporate the dominant themes of different genres into their work. Because Woolf admitted these stories were inexperienced trials and diversion, I can’t allow myself to put much stock into it. Despite this rant, I do like “A Society” and “Kew Gardens.” They are the lone soldiers in this collection.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Synthesis of Expression and Form in Modern Art

At the start of Glen Macleod’s chapter, he establishes the essentialness of the interdisciplinary nature of Modern Art. This reminds me of Helen and Margaret’s eternal argument in Howard’s End. In terms of art forms influencing each other, Margaret must represent the standpoint of classical representational art, which asserts an impossibility of the form of one art being adopted by another. On the other hand, Helen speaks on behalf of Modern Art when she illustrates Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor as a drama of goblins and elephants. She views music as literature and drama, rather than as just music. Her deduction embodies the soul of the Modernist Movement.

It is a little known fact that the vast majority of early twentieth century literature originated as pictorial art. It is even lesser known that there are oppositional rifts in abstract arts such as veristic surrealism and absolute surrealism or geometrical and non-geometrical abstract art. It is very interesting to see how two artistic movements can be influenced by the same art but are theoretically and practically discordant with each other. A good example is Fauvism and Cubism, as depicted in Alfred H. Barr’s, Jr. sketch of the interrelatedness of Modern Art.

Another potential rift is exposed in “Desmond MacCarthy: The Post-Impressionists” and “Clive Bell: The Artistic problem.” MacCarthy asserts the importance of emotional expression in art over its literal representation of objects. He uses childhood art to support his claim for primitive art. Even though a painter, author, or sculptor can realistically depict something or someone, there must be a “significant” amount of expression in the work. He believes that “there comes a point when the accumulations of an increasing skill in mere representation begin to destroy the expressiveness of the design” (101). Thus, to MacCarthy, an artist may or may not acquire the skill for realism. This is of no consequence. The artist must instead be wholly devoted to expressing emotion.

However, in “Clive Bell: The Artistic problem,” Bell gives his attention to form more so than expression. Although he indicates that expression—creative impulse—is an essential part of the artistic process, he does not value expression in and of itself but values expression contained in a form. To Bell the form is the last step to prove mastery of an art.

Although MacCarthy and Bell esteem different aspects of art, the nature of Modern Art allow these differences to unify. It seems that, according to Macleod’s overview of Modern Art, form becomes a means of expression to Modern artists. Because of the rifts and derision sparked by the fight for artistic revolution or tradition or evolution, re-revolution, and de-evolution, it stands to reason that MacCarthy and Bell could use a synthesizing. As MacCarthy mentions, synthesis or “Synthesists” does not adequately represent the individual; however, in this case, synthesis can benefit the overall analysis of Modern Art. In combining the two theories, one can discern that Modern artists’ emotions were expressed through form. All of the denominations in the spiritual quest for Modernist forms attest to that. Therefore, In Modern Art, MacCarthy’s cry for emotional expression and Bell’s plea for form are one and the same. The different forms are the result of artistic emotional expression.