In the excerpt from Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the omniscient narrator comes off as this sage type who is literate in all things ‘hood.’ His smart alec advice peppered with English slang and Spanish idioms conveys his knowledge of the particularly Latino ways of the street. He even bluntly explains that the “’typical’ Dominican family” expects the boys to be shameless whores with girls (Díaz 129). Although the Dominicano hero of this story is highly intelligent (he uses ‘NOT ghetto’ English words like “orchidaceous”), the narrator implies he is inextricably linked to the Jersey ghetto in which he grows up (153). In this Dominican ghetto, he is not hombre enough, and he is called “mariconcito” (a gay slur) by the other kids because of his sci-fi obsessions (134). I do not believe the narrator, through his use of Spanglish, confines the nerdy Oscar Wao to this ghetto with its own unquestionable street rules and where feels he does not belong. The ghetto is part of him, but it does not completely define him. All the ‘f bombs’ and Spanish slang (some harmless, some downright dirty) the narrator includes seem to be an integral component of Wao’s adolescent world. Yet, at least in this excerpt, Wao does not utilize them himself. But, what language can be better used to convey this hyphenated world (Domincano-Americano) other than Spanglish? This narrator’s use of Spanglish, I feel, is not a corruption of English; it is a sophisticated use of two languages to realistically relate to readers the world of the Dominican maturing in ghetto America.
García Márquez’s short story, “Light is Like Water,” was published in 1993 in a collection called Doce Cuentos Peregrinos. This original Spanish title can roughly translate to ‘Twelve Pilgrim Tales,’ but the official title of this collection’s English translation is Strange Pilgrims. Oddly, this English addition to the title, I believe, better illuminates the collection’s motif of dislocated peoples and even alludes to the multiple meanings of the word, “strange,” in the Spanish language. This interplay of meaning across two languages may also allude to how Márquez challenges the very meaning of the word, “pilgrim,” throughout his short stories.
When I think of the word pilgrim, I immediately think of people who journey to a foreign land with a definite destination in mind. Often times, although they are foreigners to that land, they view it as a vital origin of their self-identities to which they must reconnect. In “Light is Like Water,” as coastal Colombians with Spanish heritage, Totó and Joel are both distant children of their motherland, Spain, and extraño (alien to) its culture and the inner-city land of Madrid. Since these brothers are ‘strangely’ displaced, exiled from their homeland but trapped in their motherland (a point of origin of their cultural identity), they embody a different type of pilgrim. They seem like wandering extranjeros (strangers/outsiders), rootless, although they are literally close to their Spanish roots. Their parents or whatever cause not mentioned in the story rendered them forced pilgrims to the motherland; and by navigating the light on their fifth floor apartment, it seems as if the brothers are trying to reconnect with what they view as their true, coastal, rather than peninsular, identity. They attempt to liken the oppressive, urban Madrid to the coastal homeland they love by navigating the ‘urban waters’ –the light or electricity that is so closely tied to a highly developed metropolis. The brothers’ inland apartment in Madrid can be like the coastal Cartagena if they ride on or travel through the light, but it never truly is Cartagena. Light is like water, but it never truly is water.
In “The Garden of Forking Paths” and Invisible Cities, Borges and Calvino respectively present the reader with the idea that narratives are fluid and the spaces in which they occur cannot be mapped out in a single, fixed blueprint.
In Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marco Polo’s description of Esmeralda suggests its inhabitants structure the city’s life by choosing, from an infinite number of routes, which canals or streets to travel upon. As the fictional world in which characters function is constructed by the author, or the narrator persona the author adopts, the canals and streets –the setting in which these city-dwellers must live their lives—were constructed by the unknown creator, or the city designer. These physical spaces exist and can, perhaps, be recordable in the form of a map, whose features, over time, accurately reflect the spaces it represents. The actions of the characters or its inhabitants, however, are not so easily recordable, especially if, like in the city of Esmeralda, they are presented with opportunities to pursue different courses of action every day.
As Albert’s character recognizes “the garden of forking paths was [Ts’ui Pen’s] chaotic novel,” I similarly view the ‘garden of forking paths’ as a metaphor for the multidimensional narrative (Borges 499-500). Albert perceives the many different futures a character creates through his choice to pursue all courses of action as the branching divisions of time in the narrative and not of physical spaces. But wouldn’t the creation of numerous times, in which different paths lead to different futures, create many, different spaces? These spaces could be alternate dimensions in the narrative, whose events unfold in spaces adjacent to each other; at times, they graze each other’s presence or even converge with one another. These branches, whose growth stems from the choices of characters, can be infinite, and that infinity cannot be confined to a single map. Yet, a single narrative contains all of those possibilities.
It’s fascinating too, to think that one story, although it doesn’t, like Ts’ui Pen’s “chaotic novel,” attempt to include all of the infinite ‘futures’ a character creates, is itself a fluid blueprint for the fluid spaces it represents. Readers could, perhaps, exercise the power of choice the inhabitants of Esmeralda seem to possess, to choose which canals or streets of a narrative to navigate.
In Part I of Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness, Marlow addresses to the men listening to him to the impossibility of accurately relating to them “the penetrating essence” of his experience in the Congo and with Mr. Kurtz (Conrad 79). This passage, with its imagery of seemingly impenetrable darkness, implies that Marlow’s listeners must, as Marlow did to process his encounters with primitive life and the enigmatic Kurtz, navigate their way through the dense, perplexing fog of Marlow’s narrative. I would argue that this storytelling relationship –one of alienation due to the growing figurative and literal ‘darkness’– between Marlow and his listeners mirrors the relationship between modernist fiction and its readers.
As Marlow recounts his experiences through a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative, he bombards his listeners with details of his external world and his own inner thoughts. He plunges his listeners into the darkness of his own psyche, while in the plot of the main story arch, the listeners find themselves in literal darkness: “It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice” (79). The deepening of the night to a “pitch dark” may signify Marlow’s progression into the abstract ideas of his feelings evoked by the mysterious Kurtz (79). A darkness, or the obscurity of his own human experience, envelopes the listeners so thickly that they are, perhaps, distanced from each other’s humanity and that of the storyteller, Marlow.
Readers of modernist fiction may, perhaps, feel this similar alienation or distance from the humanity of the characters they encounter; these characters may, at first, be “no more…than a voice” in the darkness (79). However, readers, like the one listener who keeps himself awake to hear Marlow’s entire narrative, I would say, must attempt to understand the overwhelming darkness –the close-up, shock-to-the-system worlds portrayed by modernist fiction– even if, by the end of their readings, they haven’t reached a neat resolution that renders the darkness more clear and less, for lack of better words, downright scary to the psyches of readers. The point of modernist fiction, I feel, is to throw readers into the good and bad (the light and dark) of the human experience and to imprint on these readers at least a smidge of the darkness each attempt to portray; and readers, perhaps, must accept, too, as Marlow recognizes the impossibility of completely conveying the human experience, that the darkness they encounter will never be fully penetrable.
In the chapter, Uncanny Space, Weinstein states: “rule number one in realism [is] dictating that we come to understand subjects by understanding their movement through space and time. Rule number two is that narrative space in realism is reliably inventoried:…everything pertinent to the subject’s orientation is identified” (102).
After reading this excerpt, I thought about what Weinstein describes as the absence of a clear orientation of the subject and his world to the reader in modernist fiction. By using Freudian concepts of space and time, Weinstein claims the modernist protagonist synthesizes his conflicted internal space with his physical settings; he cannot properly function through this space in time because his troubling preoccupations with the past disrupt the linear progression of his present toward self-knowing and a resolution or recognition (83; 86-87). As a result, the reader has difficulties becoming oriented with the modernist subject. What if readers, with their own experiences of existing in unhealthy states stalled in space and time, connect to the modernist subject in spite of his mindboggling introduction to them by the narrator?
According to Weinstein, readers give credibility to the fictional worlds of realist writing because “everything pertinent to the subject’s orientation is identified” (102). The objects and people that help the subject achieve recognition are visibly emphasized in his space by the narrator. Modernist fiction is, perhaps, discombobulating to readers because no distinct degrees of emphasis are placed on the objects and people of the subject’s space. Perhaps some readers can relate to this sense of chaos evoked by modernist fiction. Perhaps this close-up chaos presented to readers is “pertinent” in their processes of coming to know the subject’s world (102). The readers’ experiences of this chaos in their own real worlds could allow them to give credibility to the subject’s world.
Could this be a possibility? I might be overstretching Weinstein’s “plots” of Realism and Modernism and forcing them to mingle with each other. But, I do believe that some readers, specifically ones who have experienced their own bouts of psychological trauma or who are tortured by their “anterior states,” could find a sense of verisimilitude or familiarity with the protagonist’s world, however disorienting it may be for both the subject and the reader (86).
In Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, Nora recognizes that she has been treated like a “doll-child” her entire life by both her father and her husband, Torvald (Doll act 3). Nora’s figurative doll houses are the male-dominated environments (homes) in which her father and husband use her like a mindless toy for their own entertainment. Despite blaming these puppeteer-like males for her discontentment, Nora seems to display ambivalence as to whether her own willingness to act as a passive female reinforces her ‘doll’ status.
Nora’s declaration of her recognition to Torvald implies, perhaps, that she at some point embraced her role as her husbands ‘doll’: “You arranged everything according to your taste; and I got the same tastes as you; or I pretended to–I don’t know which–both ways, perhaps” (Doll act 3). This act of ‘pretending’ necessitates from the pretender (Nora) the differentiation between what she, as an independent thinker, believes to be truths, and the truths she upholds as a performer entertaining someone else (Torvald) (Doll act 3). The truths Nora is expected to uphold as a performing ‘doll’ appear to be tied to Torvald’s “taste”: everything from his definitions of proper masculine and feminine behaviors to how he ‘arranges’ the power structure and gender spheres in the physical spaces of his ‘doll house’ (Doll act 3). As an unthinking doll, Nora is not supposed to possess or acquire the ability to develop this differentiation. As a doll that “got the same tastes as [her husband],” Nora is a vessel that passively absorbs and believes the truths of her male superiors (Doll act 3). Her recognition that she was possibly ‘pretending’ at times, however, indicates that she metaphorically became a doll that gained consciousness in fleeting instances; she desired to reject the manipulations of her male puppet masters (Doll act 3). Nora continued, however, to perform her assigned role as a ‘doll’ so as to not fall short of the truths she chose to believe in as a ‘pretender.’
In the chapter, “Genealogy of Realism,” Weinstein appears to unsettle the quite literally interpreted definition of realist writing as a mere re-production of the world through language. Weinstein’s notion that language, or writing, creates its own world with its own meaning while retaining its ties in ‘reality’ led me to recall one of our class lectures concerning the translations of texts to globally disseminate them as pieces of world literature. The suggestion that texts acquire an ‘afterlife’ of additional meaning in its translated forms, perhaps exemplifies Weinstein’s claim that “writing is other than the nonverbal material it represents” (Weinstein 52).
He urges readers to not fixate on the claims of “language-as-recovery” or “language-as-loss” in regards to how language itself serves as the writer’s agent to either reduce ‘real’ world experiences and their significance or to expound upon them to readers (52). Instead, he explains, writing constructs a fictional world grounded in ‘reality’ with components easily identified by readers as resembling those in their own real worlds. It is through this recognition of fact conveyed through fiction that the readers will draw their own meaning. However, writing, I would argue, both extends and adds meaning to the ‘real’ life it depicts while concurrently becoming the ‘other’ –or artistic product separate from the ‘nonverbal material’ it reproduces in its own way.
As writing’s extends and even adds to life’s meanings, the translation of that writing into other languages may yield even more meanings and interpretations for readers. The risk exists, of course, of writing losing meaning when, for example, certain idioms do not translate clearly across languages. Even with that sense of incompleteness of meaning, readers can still, perhaps, recognize what Weinstein describes as the “familiarity” of elements in stories of a culture foreign to their own (53). The use of language to fictionally depict the world, then, can cross language barriers while still being its own work of art.
In the encyclopedic entry, “Prejudice,” Jaucourt specifically targets the absolutism of the “conventional prejudices” people so readily accept as irrefutable truths (Jaucourt 4). The questioning of these fixed “definitions” reflects the foundational Enlightenment tenet of Descartes’ systematic doubt (4).
Prejudice, it seems, results through a sort of false enlightenment when one analyzes and criticizes rashly and in haste peoples, ideas, and situations, based on their own experiences or on those of others. This improper execution of one’s own independent intelligence may lead one to rely on preconceived and flawed “definitions” of life’s many complex aspects (4). Because the components of life one experiences are multi-faceted, one must, as Descartes declared, doubt any explanation that seeks to limit the description of ideas into single, finite definitions. One must not, as convention expects, passively believe these definitions. One must struggle to interpret the “public” definitions and dig through their own doubts to find their own truths that may contradict the many seemingly permanent conventions (4). By independently powering through the uncertainty, painstaking questions, and frustrations, one can, through his own system, perhaps become enlightened by ridding himself of his prejudices.
“He bid me observe it, and I should always find, that the calamities of life were shared among the upper and lower part of mankind; but that the middle station had the fewest disasters…” (Defoe 2).
“Then, I had no plough to turn up the earth, no spade or shovel to dig it. Well, this I conquered by making a wooden spade…” (Defoe 95).
These excerpts concerning Crusoe’s rise to self-independence echo Kant’s idea of an enlightened individual emerging from the “self-incurred minority” (Kant 600). Crusoe, I would argue, becomes enlightened throughout the novel because he chooses to not depend on the understandings of life his father wishes to instill within him. He frees himself from his parent’s guardianship –a guardianship that desires Crusoe to settle down into the benign existence of the stable middle class. Instead of doing so, Crusoe ventures on his own on various sea voyages. Although he expresses remorse for his actions in times of crises, which are frequent, Crusoe nevertheless continuously learns through his successes and failures.
His triumph through these ups and downs leads to his independence from guardianship. By being stranded alone on the island, Crusoe is, quite literally, physically isolated from people. This physical isolation prevents him from easily surrendering to his despair and becoming entirely dependent on someone else with the skills to relieve him of his hardships. Despite his physical alienation from people who could help him, Crusoe relies on his own experiences with voyaging at sea to fend for himself. By being thrust into solitary living on foreign land, Crusoe develops the courage –a trait possessed by a person who is or is becoming enlightened– to create what he alone has decided he needs and wants. He “conquered” making a shovel out of wood and pots to serve his farming and food needs. Through trial and error, Crusoe learns the means of survival, thereby becoming self-sufficient and even more knowledgeable about the world outside of life’s safe “middle station” (Defoe 2).