I read about half of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao about a year ago before it was forgotten by me in an avalanche of medical and school misadventures.  I remember quickly falling in love with the story of Oscar and being tickled by the code-switching (Spanglish) in the narrative.

If language does indeed shape our environment, I wonder what the environment looks like for those who are bilingual, or even considered polyglots if you count all the different subcategories of Spanglish out there!  I also was thinking about Achebe’s comparison of Conrad and Equiano, and how if you were to assign them the same story to write, how different it would be.  Wao reminds me almost of Heart of Darkness in the sense that it’s a story within a story, or a frame story, and how the author uses this narrative to gain distance and also to achieve multiple perspectives in the story of the character.

In one of my upper level English classes, the professor brought to our attention that often the English language can be argued as misogynistic (ex: “mankind” referring to all, objects or places often referred to as female) and racist (use of words like “blacken” for “defamation” or “blackly” for “angrily).  I remember sharing with her an article about a study that finds English (particularly American Standard) has a more positive bias than other languages.  As a Humanities minor who has taken a few Linguistic Sciences classes, I find this sort of thing really interesting!

This fascination of mine had me wondering about Chinua Achebe’s decision to use English in Things Fall Apart.  It’s brought up some questions I’ve been mulling over:  If language shapes our reality, I wonder what is happening when an author writes in English whose native language is not English?  And, what happens when a native English speaker reads these words?  Is this a clash of realities?  How possible is it to experience another speaker’s reality?
I also found it interesting that Achebe incorporated proverbs and sayings from his native language and translated them into English, which further causes me to question the idea of linguistic relativity and how different speakers/readers interpret these words.

Marisol, Liminality, and God

November 17th, 2012

“MARISOL by Jose’ Rivera is an urban fantasy about a young woman fighting for survival in a world turned upside down. The play is about God, credit card debt, the apocalypse, and the hope for a brighter future. Warning: Due to adult themes and adult language, this play is not for children. Directed by Andrew Gaupp, UTA Department of Theatre Arts Professor.” (From the playbill)

Walking back to the car, I didn’t know what to think about “Marisol” after my boyfriend and I had seen it opening night. I had no immediate emotional reaction to the play, and the last Act seemed so strange, I had no coherent mental reaction to it, either.  I was reminded of what we talked about concerning the difference between Modernism and Postmodernism:  Modernism often alienates the reader in some way while leaving one with the feeling of unheimlich, while  Postmodernism alienates the reader without usually conjuring up such an emotional response.

My boyfriend, an atheist, had more to say about the play than I did. On the drive back, we talked about the intriguing idea of a finite, senile God, Nietzsche, the necessity of religion, and Nihilism.  Happy topics!  My adoptive mother is a pastor and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, and I wish she lived close enough for us to have seen it together. I introduced her to the movie “A Serious Man” (dir. Cohen Brothers, a dark comedy about the uncertainty of life and belief in “Hashem”) and she loved it, so I would have enjoyed to hear her reaction to this play.

I myself am not religious, but religion is a perpetually fascinating topic to me (with studies in Buddhism fascinating me the most as of late!).  I found an interesting Master’s thesis written about “Marisol” by a student in Religious Studies (you can read it here) that (at least the parts I closely read) focuses on liminality in “Marisol” and also the transformations and reactions of the actors the student interviewed.

Prince, the author, notes Rivera’s use of liminality to bring his magical realist play together.  Is Marisol killed on the subway and if she is dead, is this why can she see the angel?  Or did she truly escape, and if so, is her visit from the angel real or a dream?  This forking of possibilities puts Marisol in a liminal world, where she is possibly both alive and dead, and where the real world reflects what is happening across the threshold of the spiritual world where there is war (could this be an analogy to many Theists’ beliefs that what happens in the metaphysical realm affects us in the real world?).  She is also dealing with liminality regarding her faith in God.  Marisol often denies critique against God or His goodness by reciting prayers about the goodness of God, but at the end of the play we see Marisol exhibit much different behavior after she has crossed the threshold.

Prince, who interviews the actors in the version of the play she saw, notes many have come from Christian backgrounds but now identity as agnostic:

“They were extremely critical of the traditions of their heritage, and yet were not quite able to give up on “God”, whoever or whatever God might be. It is not surprising that this a central theme of the play, itself.

She later notes that the play produced emotional checks in the actors, some of whom were questioning and revising their spirituality.  Even though I have to say that, ultimately, the play was not my favorite to date, I find myself moved by the idea that Rivera’s play, for all of its absurdities, touches on the liminality of our spiritual lives as we personally evolve and as we cross (or choose not to cross) thresholds of our own, whether we be Atheist, Agnostic, Christian or Other.

They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar.

This story typifies the characteristics of magical realism  such as the magical and the mundane being accepted as fact, the irreducible element (the angel), and readerly tension (question of if the man was an angel and what he was there for).  The above quote, I think, is an accurate parallel of magical realism and the reader’s response to the magical realism in the story.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.  Although the reader hardly knows anything that goes on internally with the angel and adversely the reader has knowledge of what Gregor is thinking and  feeling, the two characters have much in common.  The suffering of the two (Gregor’s change and the angel’s change which is an apparent fall from health) are similar and so is the reaction of others to the two.  Both are ignored, confined and mostly left alone out of fear.  Perhaps the part that reminded me the most of Metamorphosis was the closing line:

She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.

The angels departure, like Gregor’s death, is looked on by others passively and with relief.

From Modernism to Postmodernsim

November 1st, 2012

My presentation’s author was Jorge Luis Borges, who, I believe is an excellent transitional author from the movement from Modernism to postmodernism.

The comparing and contrasting of these two movements is complex  and, admittedly, confusing. As these two movements are described differently by varying critics, and are certainly not monolithic in their ideas and elements, it is certainly understandable. What can be mostly decided on is that Modernism pays attention to verisimilitude while Postmodernism disregards it; another is that Modernists are more subjective while Postmodernists are objective. Both movements are notorious for alienating the reader through strange and foreign ideas put forth by the text, although Postmodernism evades the feeling of unheimlech with most readers because it is much less concerned with knowing the truth.

Borges, whose roots began in Modernism, would become known to many literary critics as the father of Postmodernism (yet, it should be noted that, like most things, this is not a monolithic idea). It was his education of Modernism and his curious experimentation in a pre-Postmodern world that allows him to bridge the gap, even a gap that is as undefined as the one between Modernism and Postmodernism.

Heart of Darkness and Othering

October 25th, 2012

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has been interpreted by many lenses of literary theory.  Its alienation, foreignness and absurdity certainly allows us to apply a Modernist reading to it.

The problem of “the other” was briefly mentioned in class while we covered Modernism, and I think Heart of Darkness is a prime example of “othering,” not only in the text, but by its first British readers of the time.

In Heart of Darkness, the African natives are “othered” by the narrator.  We are not able to see these people in an intimate way; they are mostly portrayed as objects, or foreign creatures, and little more.  Marlow states that this assertion over others and the cruelties committed against them were atrocious, but reminds his audience that if they were put in the same position,they may just end up thinking differently.  The first-time British readers further perpetuated the themes of Heart of Darkness in that they did not even realize that these themes of hypocrisy, wrongful assertion of power, and othering was directed at them and found little wrong or controversial with the book at first.

Metamorphosis

October 18th, 2012

Kafka’s Metamorphosis is certainly a good example of a Modernist text with its strange, unfamiliar story line and odd plot.  One of the explanations for the difficulty of understanding the meaning of his texts is that it is a parable, which is an allegorical story that uses concrete facts and descriptions to relay an abstract idea.  It is necessary to interpret this not as allegory but parable.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of “Aloxotl,” a short story written by Julio Cortazar that I read for my 2350 class.  In this story, the narrator begins as human but turns into an “Axolotl,” though it is for us to decide whether this really happened or was his imagination.  This story, too, uses realistic description to portray an abstract concept which requires further interpretation.

The disjointedness of these stories and the “absurdity” used in them is often described as students as distancing, but I would contend these foreign-seeming stories invite the reader to deeply engage with the text on a personal level, as their parable status allows them to be open for endless interpretation and analysis.

Faulknerian Time

October 12th, 2012

“It’s not even time until it was.” —Mr. Compson

For my first official English class at UTA (2350 with Dr. Warren), I naively decided to write a paper over Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I then vowed never again to involve myself with Faulkner—but here we are!

Faulkner’s work certainly fits in with Modernist literature, which is characterized as drawing strongly from relativity, disorder (or rather more simply, a lack of order) and fragmentation.  But although his work is described by some as inaccessible, it is my belief that this apparent inaccessibility has some hints of verisimilitude.

Faulkner often uses characters who are uninterested with or mentally outside of the flow of time.  Benjy from The Sound and the Fury, for example, is mentally unable to narrate his story to us in a timely manner.  His narrative is jumpy, strange, and foreign, especially so to the first-time reader.

Although it may seem at first glance that Faulknerian time lacks verisimilitude, it is interesting to ponder the above quote and what Weinstein has to say about it:  ”One discovers oneself in the wrong time . . .; the time one would know is past before one has properly recognized it as time.”

It is often said that time is relative.  Faulknerian time typifies this.  And even if Faulknerian time seems foreign to the first, second, even third-time reader, it is important to note that Faulkner’s use this strange, fragmented way of telling time is really a retelling of the familiar idea of time’s relativity and how we come to know ourselves.

Realism and Desiree’s Baby

September 27th, 2012

Realism in literature is defined as a “representation of reality,” or “verisimilitude,” which means “truth seeming.”  Kate Chopin, an exemplary author of realism who we’ve studied this last week, typifies these definitions via her writing especially in “Desiree’s Baby.”

One topic we discussed in class was whether Chopin herself was for or against racism, and her views on Feminism and motherhood.  I contend that one should read Chopin as simply a text “representing reality,” meaning her stories, especially Desiree’s Baby, depict reality was it was seen not reality as Chopin wished for it to be.

For example, one concern voiced by a student in class that Chopin may have been racist was her use of words toward the end of the story:  Armand reads a letter from his mother which says, “I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery.”  By using such adjectives to describe Africans, Chopin, according to the student perhaps was racist.  On the contrary, I believe author was simply depicting a realist situation of the time, and not speaking in the voice of the author but in the voice of a character, through the tinted lens of that character.

Chopin’s stories have much more realistic tendencies than personal.  It is important to read her work as a realist text and not stories with personal agendas.

Language: A World Within the World

September 20th, 2012

Wilhelm von Humboldt described language as a “world within the world.”  What he meant by this was that language provides a unique perspective to each individual living in the world as we know it, and this unique perspective is essentially constantly carving out a new, relative world to the speaker of that language.

This Humboldtian understanding of language gives rise to the sense of nationalism, as a person’s country of origin is not simply part of his description, but an essential part of his very identity.  In the spirit of language being a world within the world, this identity thereby becomes a major part of the world in which language carves out for the speaker; and for the radicals of the French Revolution, the idea of the spirit of France being inseparable from the radical is a perfect example of this.

This is an idea that is still accepted today, that things like “ideologies,” “race,” “gender,” “class” and so forth exist because we give meaning to them through language, and by bringing these ideas into existence through language, we have brought forth new tools with which to carve our own unique worlds within the world.