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The Inevitable Multiple Question Mark Review (or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and STILL Hate The Blog)

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The concept of comparing the old school of thought with the new revolutions is as old as revolution itself is.  Some people yearn for older, simpler times, while many have a preference to more advanced and realist ideas.  Literature is no exception, with books being compared, analyzed, and otherwise evaluated in order to determine the worth of the story to humanity’s long list of achievements.  Of course, opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got them and they’re all full of shit.  What makes my opinion any more valuable than my professor’s, especially considering my professor is definitely more well versed than I am in her studies? Still, everyone is entitled to their ideas and this class is a forum for us all to bring them to the table, not so much for answers but intellectual exchange.  I’ve already shared my ideas about Old Canon versus New Canon, but I’ll take this opportunity to elaborate, share my ideas, and (hopefully) get a better grade.

The Old Canon and the New Canon are actually more alike than people think.  When people think “old literature” they seem to get this image of a white-dominated, peachy keen collection of stories where the main characters are all dressed like Little House on the fucking Prairie. To be sure, I think that description of “old literature” only applies to two things: T.S. Eliot’s works and my grandmother’s crappy stories at Christmas and Easter.  I do see a common thread between between certain works of the Old and New Canons in the issues they address.  Sure, the authors were mostly white in the old days, but to be fair black education and influence wasn’t what it is now (to say the very least).  That doesn’t stop Heart of Darkness and Dreams from My Father, in my eyes, from covering common ground of race issues.

People often accuse Conrad’s story of being racist, portraying Africans as savages.  Hell, this criticism even appears in Obama’s book when an Afrocentric friend of his finds it! What most people miss, however, is that Marlow views the Europeans as more savage than the people whose land they’re plundering.  It’s not a story of the glory of European expansion, but rather a criticism of it and how power can drive a man insane.  Obama’s memoirs have also come under attack, being seen as a political tool just to gain votes.  I say that the most political thing about the book is the fact that the author became the President.  Obama evidently had a love of helping people, and he is portrayed as a man who wants to make a difference, even in small ways, to his community.  He’s shown a taste of power when he becomes the only black executive at a major corporation, but he turns it down because it’s not as fulfilling to him as being a community organizer.  Yes, he’s got great power now, but it’s different from being an executive in that it’s not just a money game: he can make real decisions to affect the world and his people.  Both books deal with race relations appropriate for the times: Conrad showing the horrors of dehumanization of Africans in the most objective way possible, and Obama growing up as a mulatto and coming to embrace his black identity.  Marlow ends up with mental scars from witnessing Kurtz’ depravity, while Obama decides that a power trip is neither in his best interest nor the interest of the community.

The Canons also have their differences, don’t get me wrong.  I’d like to assume that Eliot’s trite is about some sort of sexual encounter (because God knows if he was half as much of a whining bitch in real life that he didn’t have many) in the same way that some of Diaz’ stories are.  Granted Diaz writes in more graphic (and straightforward) terms than Eliot, but the use of Latino slang in order to bowdlerize sexual terms could be seen as something similar to Eliot’s burying his work in figurative flowers.  It’s comparing a disco song to a reggaeton song: one uses disgustingly sweet terms, the other uses an actual foreign language.  They both beat around the bush instead of straight up saying “let’s fuck,” and ultimately they’re both just shitty dance music… Actually, you know I take back two things: using these examples as differences, and calling the Bee Gees shitty.  Certainly, though, sex was not as openly discussed back in the day, even though it predates you or me (and believe me, we wouldn’t be here if it didn’t).

For all that, though, I’ve professed myself to be, and still remain, faithful to the Old Canon.  Make no mistake, I wish we could all just shut up about the merits of one versus another and just enjoy the books, but there’s something about Conrad and Hemmingway that speaks to me.  Hell, maybe even that schmuck Eliot was right in not coming out and just saying what he thinks! There’s an art to conveying emotions in writing.  I’ve always been told about writing that it is imperative to “show, not tell.”  I like the way Conrad doesn’t just come out and say in his writing what Heart of Darkness is about, but rather he lets his writing speak for itself.  It’s a testament to his writing that it is so hotly debated, even if I disagree with certain opinions on it.  Fact is that books like that are more appealing to me, not because they’re classics but because they’re timeless.  Obama’s memoirs will only have significance because it will be studied as current events now, or historical research in the future on both his history and the state of America.  He talks a good game, but ultimately I don’t believe that Dreams from My Father will hold up as anything more than insight to a civilization; it won’t be studied with the same passion as Conrad’s work.

That said about the course material, let’s get on to how the course is presented.  I gotta say, I like the informality of the blog.  However, I don’t like the blog itself.  I wouldn’t mind assignments like this informal essay being presented less frequently than the twice a week schedule we’d been abiding by all semester.  I like having ideas germinate, having me wrestle with them so I can come to a point of view rather than reading a part of a story and meditating on predictions and limited knowledge.  To me, it’s the difference between a diary and a memoir.  Not to say that diaries can’t be insightful, like Anne Frank or Nikki Sixx’s, but I’d prefer to write a better reflection with a clearer idea of what I’m experiencing as a reader than keep a diary of my progress in the book.  I do feel that this class was ambitious and moved a little too fast for that sort of approach, which resulted in shoddy performance on my part.  For that I do apologize, but I hope that you can understand my feelings on why I don’t believe that the class’ online  methodology was a success.

That said, in contradiction to my criticism of diaries, let me take this opportunity to express how cathartic and pleasing I’m finding this particular entry.  This is what it’s all about: reflection, opinion.  The informality doesn’t hurt either, I can be sharp with my criticism, I can be funny or sarcastic.  I appreciate the relaxed guidelines for writing, and as I’ve said before I do believe that if the workload was lightened up a bit that the rest of the class could have been as enjoyable as this.  I do feel that I got a lot out of the blogs I’ve submitted, being able to exchange ideas with the entire class and keep a permanent record of my thoughts.  True, the blog felt like a chore, but when I felt capable of doing it I appreciated it.  That’s not to say that this was a bad class, not at all.  As I’ve said, I’ve enjoyed the readings and parts of the assignments, I just feel that it could use some adjustment.  What couldn’t though? The internet is a new tool to the classroom, because it is still being innovated and evaluated on how it can be used.  I’m not holding this particular class against you, it’s a new thing, it’s okay to fumble a bit.  I’ve done it, you’ve done it, no biggie.

I don’t think my opinion of the course changed much, but I’ve come to appreciate the opinions that people have and shared in class.  We may not always agree, but I think it’s wonderful that this class in particular stresses the opinions and individuality of the students.  It allows the students to come into their own as writers for these blogs and papers, develop their own voices.  This isn’t a class on hard analysis, this is about you finding what you can in the book, along with evidence to back it up and saying it as you believe it.  I’ve not had many classes like that, but I do wish to have more.  Hopefully this blog thing will be fine-tuned in the future so I can see what a more fully realized version of this format would be like.  You learn from your mistakes, too, and I think this class has given me some pointers as to what I hope to do, or not do, when I become an English teacher.  I’ll keep these critiques and use them as a guideline to design courses, asking myself “what would I have wanted when I was in their desks?” I want to encourage people to develop their voices: as writers, as critics, as people.  This course, for all my gripes and faults, has given me a new appreciation of what an opinion is, what individuality is.  I thank the class and professor for that, and wish you all the best.

One Last Thing Before I Quit

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

So, the end of the class hangs near.  In all the time that we’ve had, it adds up to almost two days worth of group discussion of literature.  Admittedly my transportation arrangements have made it a bit spotty attendence-wise and my blogging has been sporadic, but a decent run.  The question lingers though: what the fuck do I, or does anyone else taking the class, have to show for all this?

We were warned that the first half of the class was “The Canon,” the literature approved by scholars to be of some value to the academic world.  This shit’s supposedly worth our time reading and pondering.  We were also warned that it might be difficult to deal with.  Me, I dug it mostly.  Heart of Darkness is always a favorite, though I stand by my opinion of Eliot being a pretentious and melodramatic twat.  The Sun Also Rises was also a pretty cool guy, eh talks like a child and doesn’t afraid of anything.  All in all, not too bad.  I wouldn’t read any of this because of its endorsement by that dude from Masterpiece Theatre but it wasn’t as painful as the professor made it out to be.

Next, we had the uncharted stuff that the professor added to the syllabus in order to shake things up.  More contemporary works that are widely studied, but are the “gnostic” books of the course in the sense that they aren’t books with a legacy.  Of note was Obama’s memoir, which regardless of your politics is a pretty interesting story.  Of all the promises that he made on the campaign trail, his promise to be a person of the people seems most tangible in his writing.  If you didn’t know it was the president, you’d almost be inspired to think that even a mouth breather like you could write something worth reading! Persepolis was an interesting look at what’s gone on in a part of the world that gets no sympathy from most people.  Hopefully it’s expanded at least someone in the class’s mind and opened them up to the political plight that every nation potentially faces with an extremist government.  Faulkner’s story was alright, too.  A canon book in the second half of the course, but held up as well as anything.

I think that the expectation that the canon would lose the class, at least for me, is someone a very generalized statement.  Both parts of the class had their ups and downs, but I personally had a preference for the first books we read.  I don’t say that because of their place in history, but rather because they transcend history.  There’s an intangible qualilty about the stories, an intricacy that they have that seems to run deeper than some of the latter stuff.  Yes, Persepolis is moving, but from a purely literary perspective I think that Kurtz’ death is much more striking due to the fact that it lacked pictures, making the very nature of the character as mysterious to the reader as it is to Marlow.

I don’t pay the history of the books any mind, to be honest, but to me the older works evoke more of a mood than the newer ones.  Is this because books like Dreams from My Father and Drown were written in an age where pictures have become so ubiquitous that even telephones and Barbie dolls have cameras? Or is it because Conrad and Hemmingway are simply better writers? I don’t really know, to be honest.

I’m not quite sure that anybody who asks questions in the literary world ever really knows the answer, or hopes to find one.  These things I ask because, yes, this class has in some small way changed how I think about literature.  It has opened my mind to different writers, works, and perspectives.  The blog, as much of a pain in the ass as it was and will forever be to me, was an unfiltered way for me to share my (admittedly sometimes tactless) thoughts.  The class reflected these sentiments, in that questions and opinions were raised but conclusion was seldom found.  That’s the wonderful thing about literature, though: it is always going on, even when you close the book.  You write essays in the present tense when you talk about these stories because the issues and themes presented in them never stop.  They’re on-going intellectual challenges to scholars and newcomers alike.  Everyone has their own opinion on what literature is or what a book is about, and no one opinion is right.  This class has made me realize that though I am an English major and will always be wrestling with the words on a page, I don’t need to expect conclusions for everything I read or think because of the text.  Nobody needs to have answers in literature, only ideas to be shared and compared.

Also, in closing, I say this song best sums up T.S. Eliot:
“Pink Cellphone” by Deftones

The Schizophrenic Song of Oneself

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

On any given day, one person can play various roles.  Maxine’s mother, as we all do, is not the same person from day to day.  Humans are creatures who constantly change based on their environment.  Evolution is a process that ensures that only those who can adapt survive.  Look at science, for instance: treatments for cancer and AIDS are being looked into, better bombs are being built, and outer space is being looked into for colonization, all in the name of being able to survive.

It’s not just threats to the quality of life that demand people change, it’s their place in the world as well.  The company a person keeps, as well as their social class often demand different behaviours.  I wouldn’t treat a stranger exactly the same way I’d treat a close friend of mine.  They’d get a degree of courtesey, but respect must be earned.

Mood is also something that can alter how a person is on a certain day.  If I’m in a bad mood, I’d be less willing to do something carefully as opposed to taking my time.  It’s a bit selfish, but that’s how a bad mood can be.  If I’m sad, I’d be sensitive and quiet.  People do the strangest things to meet their needs, and sometimes the needs of others.

What Makes a Swordswoman?

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

I found it most interesting when the parallel was brought up in class to the Disney movie Mulan.  I’d always suspected that there was some fable the story came from, since Disney rarely does anything creative or original any more.  At the same time, Mulan was an awe inspiring story to me as a child.  I can’t take that away from it, but I did take away my view of gender roles from it and these same views are presented in the text.

Women throughout history have often been said to have a place as homemakers and caretakers.  These gentler qualities are said to be “feminine,” while violence and work are “masculine.”  Mulan and Maxine both want to embrace their masculine side and be the kinds of courageous heroes that society claims only men can be.  I don’t see how androgyny can hurt society, to be frank.  After all, in the animal kingdom gender roles that humans claim to be the norm are sometimes subverted.  We look at the lioness who hunts or the pregnant male seahorses for no better examples.

At their core, swordsmen are defined better by the phallic object they wield to cut down their opponent instead of their actual penis.  Agility, precision, and grace are all essential to swordsmanship, though, and are also common “feminine” attributes.  Certainly the qualification for female heroes can be met.  The other thing that swordsmen have is honor, which is an androgynous trait.  Stereotypically speaking, men have their honor that they must fight to keep and so do women, but in more subtle ways such as virginity and homemaking.  The truth is that while everyone is constantly seeking heroes, sometimes one can be a hero in their own small way by leading the life they live normally on their own terms.

The Purpose of a Blog

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I SUCK AT KEEPING UP WITH BLOGS! It’s not that I have no interest, it’s that I’ve got a certain standard of quality I like to meet before my thoughts are published and it’s difficult for me to keep up with several thoughts I’m supposed to jot down a few times a week.  How do I answer the questions? How do I respond to the text itself? How do I trail off and make a compeltely different rant?

I’ve always been criminally awful with keeping up with journals back from the days of books (anybody else remember that sorta thing?) or other blogs I’ve had to keep.  This blog isn’t any different, really.  I appreciate the fact I can freely air out how much I love a book or wish ill upon the author, publisher, and binder for unleashing a particular trashy novel into the world, but the truth is that I’d prefer to do so in one big, consolidated train of consciousness instead of reflecting on parts of a book at a time.  It’s more in tune with the way I work.

I don’t agree with studying a novel piece by piece until I’ve read it over once.  For me to stop reading to jot down thougts to me is like asking a band at a concert to stop playing so you can copy down the setlist so far.  How much did the authors intend people to read into with these books? Did they tailor their works for group study, private reflection, or personal enjoyment? The way I see it, most of the books we’ve read this semester fit into the latter two categories, with only the essays and criticisms we’ve briefly touched on falling into the group study idea.

I know I can’t shape the class around my individual needs, but I can’t pretend to be comfortable having a bunch of micro essays each week instead of one big moneyshot per book or month.  Maybe it’s just me? It probably is.  I’ve always held the opinion that blogs are websites people can go on to feel self-important and bitch about petty things.  I’ve always hated that idea, yet here I am right now doing just that.  Technology can be a wonderful tool if utilized correctly, but I feel that blogs are not in the best interest of humanity and/or academics.

The essay is an art form that the blog has desecrated, and I feel like I’m just dragging the knife across its throat by being a blogger.  I could deal with Twitter, since short musings can be insightful as essays, but asking for a gelded form of an intellectually challenging and well-structured document seems counter-intuitive to education.  Students should write more, this is true, BUT they should write more to enunciate and elaborate on their ideas in the context of a whole novel, as opposed to writing “I’m stuck at this part now, but it helps me understand yesterday’s reading more even if I still can’t make sense of it.” Music has devolved from grand mulit-part symphonies that would carry on for hours to the iTunes and radio friendly single.  Nobody has the attention span for an EP anymore, nevermind a suite.  Is it safe to say that this is the same fate that awaits literature and it’s critics? Everyone posts their works in progress, or their interpretations of works in progress, without having a deeper understanding and realization of what they’re creating?

Word up with Obama

Monday, November 29th, 2010

If you’d asked Americans ten years ago if they’d like to see a black President, I think one-third would be in favor, another third would be indifferent, and the last third would probably make some “intelligent” comment like “It’s the White House for a reason.” Now how has any of this changed in a decade? Well, we have a black President but that’s about it.  Ironic, considering the buzzword Obama touted throughout his campaign was “change”.  In the world of computer graphics, there’s a term called a “pallatte-swap”.  In effect, this means that a character model’s colours are changed but they serve the same function as the inital model or sprite.

Politicians are a faulty lot as is.  Anyone expecting major change from one puppet to another is a fool.  Obama is a change from Bush’s pin-the-tail-on-the-jackass approach at governing the nation, but he’s inherited a mess.  His decision making has mostly been quiet, leading the most of his criticism.  Bush’s silence was disturbing because anytime he opened his mouth he seemed to blurt some moronic idea that you could tell he took half a term to form the words to say, instead of asking himself “is this a good idea?” Obama’s is less eerie because less has changed.  As a nation, America seems to have been left to it’s own devices with the president acting as the Queen of England would: a figurehead to a nation that just needs someone to look to.

Obama’s memoirs paint a portrait of a man who is in touch with his racial identity as well as observant of the identities of those around him.  As a writer, and perhaps as a human being even, he seems fairly grounded in reality.  However, as a politician he seems to be a streamlined pallatte-swap of William Taft.  That’s not to say that Obama is fat and lazy, but has he brought change besides the footnotes in the history book? Thus far no.  Bush proved that you shouldn’t try to fix what isn’t broken, but two years into his term and we’re still wondering how Obama will fix the wreck that Bush caused.

Sounding off on “Fury”

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

Well, what’s to say about The Sound and the Fury? Where it came alive for me? I get Faulkner’s stream of conscious angle.  I’d think if anyone did, it would be me after all.  That’s not to toot my own own, but Faulkner’s style is perhaps even more disjointed than my own.  If Thompson is my influence, Faulkner’s my grindstone.  That’s a real word, right? “Grindstone”? I’m not doing some Oscar Wilde thomyorkefoolery and making up words to suit my purposes?

Right, so when does the book come alive? I daresay that my worldview has not made the book come alive for me, but rather I acknowledge the fact I’ve always co-existed with this book.  Drab as people may have seen the opening pages, or as confused as the time shifts may have been for others, I never felt too lost by this book.  You can’t shit a bullshitter, after all.  I admittedly haven’t dug some of the readings we’d done after Heart of Darkness, but The Sound and the Fury actually is halfway decent.  Perhaps that’s why this blog entry is so concise and lacking my usual wit?

Truth is every character is played as a human being worth of empathy rather than some half-assed metaphor or other enigma.  Their plights are all very real things that I and people I know have experienced to some degree.  I couldn’t tear this book apart if I tried.

…And Justice For Allah

Thursday, October 28th, 2010

Islam is the most misunderstood religion in the modern world. Especially in the post-9/11 world, the most popular images of Muslims are ones displaying them as warmongers hell bent on converting everyone to their faith. Of course, this is just a widespread stereotype that political opponents of Iraq and the Middle East hold. It is true that Iraq started the Islamic Revolution, as illustrated in Persepolis, but it has less to do with the religion’s beliefs than it does with individual revolutionaries and extremist factions. Indeed, Christianity would not look so pure if society kept the memory of the violence of the crusades and the Ku Klux Klan, or even the Nazis’ revisionist attempts at making Jesus into an Aryan superhero sent by God to kill the Jews. Seriously.

Islam gets a bad rap not because it is an inherantly evil religion, but because the most vocal and violent minority happen to hold the strictest and most literal interpretation of the Qu’ran. As seen in the graphic novel, this faction managed to seize control and political influence in the Middle East resulting in a theocracy governed by a radical interpretation of their holy text and fear by the unstable faction who hold those words as literal. Any high school student who’s read The Crucible can tell you that extremist religion added to totalitarian power over fear leads to true terrorism.

America is no stranger to this type of terrorism. 9/11 was a tragedy, but the true terrors committed on American soil are things the government had comitted against its people: the Salem Witch Trials, the internment of Asians during World War II, and the blind racism and fear spread by people in positions of power such as McCarthy and Bush. I don’t believe an entire faith or race can be based on hate, but basing a government’s reign on fear and antiquated literature designed as morality stories never leads to good things. Not in America, not in Iraq, not anywhere. No matter how peaceful a religion is, a minority holds staunch views to keep tradition and not read deeper into the text. Guaranteed, if America was overtaken by Amish tomorrow morning we’d still be oppressed. The Islamic Revolution was a bad idea because of a marriage of extremist beliefs of religion and government.

An Earnest Dissection of Hemingway

Monday, October 25th, 2010

When I was a lad, I used to love writing lists, poetry, and stories on my family’s computer. Within the depths of the confusing toolbar of Corel WordPerfect I discovered many fascinating features that have long since been integrated into the main program, such as spell check, the thesaurus, and the word count. The word count feature allowed me to get in-depth statistics about the contents of my writing and compare it against famous documents such as the Declaration of Independence. One option for comparison that I would consistently see as a match to my pre-adolescent skill was “Hemingway Short”. Not knowing what that meant, I did the only sensible thing anybody in my position would do when faced with life’s obstacles: consult my mommy! She explained to me that he was a writer who was famous for his short stories. In my five year-old mind all I could think was what a clever bastard this Hemingway must be, to write stories that are so short and yet be renowned enough to be a touchstone for other writers!

Had I actually picked up The Sun Also Rises when I was a child, I probably would have had my mind blown wide open at the fact that Hemingway’s “short story” was 251 goddamn pages long! I mean, that was a number that I could only measure in Pokèmon! I probably would have thrown an age appropriate shit-fit, branded my mother a liar, and questioned if anything else I held as true by her word was really a lie.

Thankfully a lot has changed since those days, and I have since expanded my mind. 251 pages is short for a novel. Hell, my favorite books are The Great Gatsby, The Wasp Factory, The Catcher In The Rye, and On The Road, so 251 is par for the course whereas a book that long with no pictures would be tedious for a five year-old. Hemingway’s also to the point with his writing, forgoing elaborate sentences and more or less making observations separated by periods. Some people say that this characteristic of his work is a bit childish and difficult to read. I think the easy-to-read nature of his novels would have made them more accessible to me as a kid, but even as an adult I can appreciate the observations he makes in this style. Hemingway’s style may put some people off, but it’s intriguing how he can describe scenes in a vivid fashion with such simple and even primitive sentences. It is that youthful naïvity of his pen that makes Hemingway’s style unique, seeing everything in his work as plainly and clearly as a child would.

Was it worth any of that?

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

My main complaint with Eliot is how he manages to turn a simple thought into an insufferable wall of text.  After condensing my thoughts on “The Waste Land” into a glorified blog entry that could have saved your time, and my reputation and grade if I just wrote “tl;dr”, I decided to give him another shot with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and see if he sucks less here.  I mean the title reminds me of J. Edgar Hoover, how bad can it be? I mean we’re talking about a guy like this:

No, devoted(?) readers, truth is that Eliot has gone back and done it again! Another wall of text with a b.s. epigraph.  It’s cool, though, since the assignment this time wasn’t to read and analyze the poem, but rather what a motif in it was.  And that motif is the repeated line “And would it have been worth it, after all…” which begins two seperate stanzas.  In the context of the poem, it’s about the speaker being afraid of a woman he admires.

This line begins a list of questions, wherein he grapples with the value of his attempts at courtship.  These are feelings that every man has, whether they admit it or not.  Some people care more for the chase than the kill.  Perhaps the narrator is one of those people, but instead of setting himself up for disappointment, wasted time, or being a lady killer he stops himself.  After all, courtship is a serious game that nobody should engage in without an intent to follow up on the promises they make.  Maybe he is a liar? Maybe just a coward? Is there a difference, in love? Perhaps not, but T. S. Eliot’s wordiness works for the poem here, making the narrator an unlikeable worry wart, overanalyzing everything before and after his insecurities happen.  I can’t help but wonder if Eliot had this trouble, too? Being so dramatic and critical of everything in his own life that he’d lose interest in women he thought he fancied, or drove them away by being a long winded drama queen (or perhaps the women may have even thought him a queen, with his sensitivity and choice of words (read: paragraphs)).  The narrator may perhaps be the most self-hating character I’ve encountered in literature since Holden Caulfield or Judas Iscariot!

I suppose this needs a good conclusion, and so my dear Prufrock I can offer you this: if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

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