Friday, July 1, 2011

A Note on "The World Just Makes More Sense When I Look At My Dog"

My dog died a year ago today, July 1, 2010. Not a day goes by when I don't miss him. I realized, though, that I never posted the philosophy paper that I wrote about him.

To be frank, I think it is one of my more poorly written papers. I wrote it for a beginning philosophy class at community college before I entered University. As I re-read it, I had to resist cutting out major sections of it for passive voice, rambling, and various other grammatical and stylistic snags. Further, the content drives me a bit crazy. I know more about Buddhism now and wish I presented something less elementary. Not to mention, my eventual study of Edward Said makes me want to rip into Siddartha for being a token piece of the most flagrant Orientalism. (as displayed in "I See You Are Only Interested in the Exceptionally Rare": An Inquiry into Disney's Participation in the Orientalist Discourse" -- definitely a better paper)

However, I do still appreciate the spirit with which I wrote the paper. It was written when I was beginning to really grasp my love for writing academia. The philosophy classes I took in community college inspired my thirst for writing academic papers that are accessibly written. 

Let us be honest: the vast majority of such papers are torturously tedious and boring. There is good reason why academic discourse seldom makes it to the New York Times Bestseller. It is possible, though. Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story of Who Changed the Bible and Why, provides a great example. Ehrman's idea was not new; the theological community has long known that the Bible had been edited and crafted both for the sake of politics and out of sheer human error. Ehrman, however, provided something new to this discourse by expressing the ideas in a way that the general populace could understand and relate to. Most importantly: a way to be enjoyed.

I have sought this kind of writing so that my love for academia is infectious -- and illustrate that academia does not have to be boring! "The World Just Makes More Sense When I Look At My Dog" certainly lacks the pomp and circumstance that even I would normally put into an academic paper. To many academics, I am sure that this paper appears lazy, elementary, and poorly written. While I can admit to the latter two characteristics, I will defend the former. Much effort went into this paper -- it was written during one of my worst cases of writer's block. Writing it in the fashion that I did was a huge risk. I was perfectly aware that my lack of quotations and organized thesis would be unacceptable according to the standards of academic writing. However, my narrative choice seemed the most appropriate style for what I was trying to express. Apparently, that sentiment was clear because my professor gave me and 'A.'

All that is left to be said is a big thank you to my Jake. In growing up with you over 13.5 years, you taught me many lessons about love, responsibility, and even academia. Watching Disney movies with you in my room inspired my direction, after all. You were the epitome and sweetness and love. You were a true blessing to the world. There is a reason why everyone who met you loved you, and it was not just your adorable puppy face. (Of course, your adorable puppy face helped) Thanks for being the most wonderful pet, familiar, inspiration, and friend that a girl could ask for. I love you and miss you every day.

The World Just Makes More Sense When I Look At My Dog

I once heard a story about two Buddhist monks. I do not remember the exact phrasing, but the story basically went as such:
A master and a novice were walking along the river when they came across a naked woman. She had been bathing, but then had hurt herself. She needed to be carried across the river, so she asked the monks for help. The master immediately picked her up and carried her across the river. The novice asked the master why he had carried her when part of their creed is chastity. The senior monk replied, “I let her go long ago. Why do you still carry her?”
Before I even finished reading it, the theme of this story was obvious to me: attachment. The fundamental  root of all suffering, according to Buddhist teaching, is attachment. My initial idea of attachment, before, had been material things: clothes, houses, video games, etc. This story, however, highlighted what was missing from my personal connotations to the meaning of attachment. The novice was attached to literal meaning: to him, nudity meant sex. To the master, nudity was not attached to sex. This reminded me of one of my own attachments to meaning: that attachment applied to material things. Having gained a little extra insight, I moved on. Then I read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and saw the film Siddhartha.
The historical figure known as Buddha was named Siddhartha Gautama. I knew that Hesse could not have named his protagonist Siddhartha without making an allusion to Buddha and his teachings. As soon as I opened the book, I expected to read something about attachment. It was never explicitly stated, but I saw its presence as Siddhartha lived without it among the Samanas and drowned in it as he lived in the material world. As Siddhartha lived on the river with Vasudeva and achieved enlightenment, though, I sensed its presence in a form I could readily identify. This bothered me for a while, but then I let it go, thinking that I was too attached to finding attachment in the story.
Approaching the film, I tried to be as unattached to the book as possible. Experience has taught me that holding on too tightly to a book will often spoil the film. I love film for its interpretative quality, and I was not about to miss any new insights the film could offer me. What I had not prepared for was my inner film critic. With the opening shots, I appreciated the cinematography. This was quickly overshadowed. Throughout the film I was constantly distracted by the actors. To be frank, I was distracted by their poor acting. Every moment on the screen felt like a contrivance. As they recited their lines, I was painfully aware that they were reciting lines rather than speaking dialogue. It did not feel natural, so I did not believe in the thoughts and emotions they portrayed on the screen the way I believed Forrest Gump’s love for Jenny or Rick’s pain over losing Ilsa. My training in Stanislavsky and  Linklater stuck a stubborn filter over my perceptions that I could not peel away despite my best efforts. Driving home from class, I beat myself up for being so attached to my acting training.
I did not bother to suppress a slightly bitter chuckle when a response paper to Hesse’s book and the film was assigned. It was not because I resent writing a paper. On the contrary, I am one of those freaky students who actually likes writing papers. No, it was because I felt that this paper would not come to me as naturally as papers tend to come. Reading the book had been more like a confirmation rather than a revelation. Every word about the experience of enlightenment made sense to me: the illusion of time, the transcendent connection everything shares, the traps created by words and thoughts, and freedom of experience and action. These were all things I had thought and expressed before. While reading the book and watching the film, I did not experience that “ah ha” moment that is crucial to my writing. Could I really write anything of substance based on these experiences? I saved the email with the assignment paper in my school documents folder, and I went to bed hoping that the answer would come to me while I slept.
I spent days pondering how to write a response. The answer did not come in my sleep. I did not expect it to, but one can always hope. I have a good record for writing papers because I always seek to write along themes that I expect other students to avoid -- papers others do not think their teachers will approve -- the archetypes present in the Final Fantasy video game series, the aesthetic philosophy of Disney animation, the different poles of thinking exhibited by Jules and Vincent as they argue over the connotations of foot massages versus oral sex in PULP FICTION. Additionally, I seek to write in such a manner that my voice virtually oozes from the page -- with touches of sarcasm and humor uniquely my own. As I sat with my Macbook, though, none of the usual weapons came to me. I leafed through the book searching for inspiration. Try as I may, no particular concept or event stood out as particularly revelatory, and trying to make it revelatory made the story mundane rather than the enjoyable read it is. I reflected on the film, but there was little I remembered beyond bad acting and beautiful cinematography. I went over my notes, but they were fragmented and insubstantial. 
Eventually, I was just fed up. I looked outside, and I saw that it was clear and sunny for once. Having not taken my best friend -- my dog, Jake -- for one of his daily walks yet, I decided to get away from the paper and clear my head. I grabbed my iPod, fastened Jake’s collar, and led him outside. I sipped jasmine tea as I walked, in hopes that the caffeine would prod my fried brain back to life. Turning on my audiobook of Siddhartha, I hoped maybe the words would drip into my self conscious. I watched Jake.  He strolled down the road a little ahead of me, and I thought, “what would I do for your kind of serenity?” He was just walking along, his belly swinging side to side with each step. With a little smile on his face, and he would smell things as he passed them, then move on. Jake was just enjoying being in the world. If he strayed a little way away, he would turn and look back for me because he loves me. He was peaceful. I could not help but notice that my observations of Jake were similar to Hesse’s descriptions of the enlightened people in the book. Based on Hesse’s description, Jake seemed to have achieved Nirvana. I laughed, thinking how that might sound to other people. Upon thinking this, the narrator of the audiobook read, “one person’s treasure and wisdom always sounds like foolishness to others.”
Frankly, I believe that my dog understands the world in ways that I do not. In some ways, he is the perfect Buddhist. True, he is attached to food, but he just eats the food I give him. True, he begs for scraps when I am eating, but only because I have a bad habit of giving him scraps. As such, he expects that I will give him food when I eat. He can sleep pretty much anywhere; there is no fancy bed required. He is very attached to me, but when I leave him, he knows that I will return -- just like the river. Honestly, he lives a lot of the wisdom that Vasudeva and Siddhartha gained from the river.  As I looked at Jake, I recalled a scene from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy where Dr. Bailey said, “the world just makes a lot more sense when you’re looking at a baby.”
 For me, writing this paper just made a lot more sense to me when I was looking at my dog. Yes, this may sound ridiculous -- not only for thinking my dog had achieved Nirvana but also for thinking of Grey’s Anatomy when writing a philosophy paper. Perhaps, but this was my signal to reflect a bit more on it.
Upon these reflections, I realized that I had attached sounding intelligent and witty to writing a good paper, just as the novice associated carrying a naked woman to sex. Perhaps there could be insight transmitted in writing something that sounded foolish on the surface. I lost track of how the story itself really existed for me. Similar to how the river existed as a whole to Siddhartha and Vasudeva, the story existed as a whole and as subtext for me. No specific quotation, event, or concept could have transmitted that in my writing. Just as Siddhartha’s entire life experience -- the ascetic, the material, the good, the bad -- helped him achieve enlightenment, the story as an entirety was what I responded to, namely attachment.
Attachment is not directly explored in the story, but it was fundamental to my experience of it. Instead of resisting it, I choose to succumb to it. By confessing, exploring, and succumbing to some of my attachments, I have ultimately freed myself from them. They have put me in touch with an empowering and transcendent attachment. That there, is one step further to achieving a greater enlightenment, for transcendence is the cornerstone of Nirvana.

Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. Narrated by Firdous Bamji. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999, Audiobook, 2006.
Hesse, Herman. Siddhartha. Translated by Susan Bernofsky. New York: The Modern Library, 2006.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Sewing Up Pirsig: My Own Inquiry Into Values

VINCENT You don't be givin' Marsellus Wallace's new bride a foot massage.
JULES You don't think he overreacted?
VINCENT Antwan probably didn't expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction.
JULES It was a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing, I give my mother a foot massage.
VINCENT It's laying hands on Marsellus Wallace's new wife in a familiar way.  Is it as bad as eatin' her out -- no, but you're in the same fuckin' ballpark.
JULES Whoa...whoa...whoa...stop right there.  Eatin' a bitch out, and givin' a bitch a foot massage ain't even the same fuckin' thing.
VINCENT Not the same thing, the same ballpark.
JULES It ain't no ballpark either.  Look maybe your method of massage differs from mine, but touchin' his lady's feet, and stickin' your tongue in her holiest of holyies, ain't the same ballpark, ain't the same league, ain't even the same fuckin' sport.  Foot massages don't mean shit.
VINCENT Have you ever given a foot massage?
JULES Don't be tellin' me about foot massages -- I'm the fuckin' foot master.
VINCENT Given a lot of 'em?
JULES Shit yeah.  I got my technique down man, I don't tickle or nothin'.
VINCENT Have you ever given a guy a foot massage?
JULES Fuck you.
Clearly, there are different paths to approaching a subject. Often, they end up in competition with each other rather than in harmony. Robert Pirsig asserts that there are two basic understandings that encompass them all: classic and romantic.
 In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig writes, “A classical understanding  sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.”
 This explanation is the most basic that he gives, but there is more associated with it. What are the symptoms of classic and romantic understandings? Pirsig first elaborates on romantic: “[it] is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate . . . It does not proceed by reason or laws.”
 It is shallow. On the other extreme, classic “proceeds by reason and laws,” facts rather than feelings predominate, and it is primarily deconstructive, logical, and rational.
 It is deep.

In concept, these two approaches are mutually exclusive. However, in actuality they are connected, for they are manifested in relation to each other. Pirsig explores the connection in several passages, and he states it most succinctly in this reflection: “The difference is that the classic reality is primarily theoretic but has its own esthetics too. The romantic reality is primarily esthetic, but has its theory too. The theoretic and esthetic split is between components of a single world. The classic and romantic split is between two separate worlds.”
Since many of the ideals held by our society are based on dualism - good versus evil, men versus women, nature versus technology, etc. - Pirsig’s dichotomized approach is very relatable to our everyday experience. When Pirsig first mentioned this divide in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I immediately recalled the conversation between Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction. As that thought passed, I found myself reflecting on which approach I ascribe to. After I progressed to the next paragraph, however, my focus turned away from self-reflection and focused more on the conflict itself.   I saw that Pirsig was trying to tie the two concepts together, but as I read the book I found much more writing about separation rather than connection.  Finding the connection became my mission, and my book’s thickness increased with each Post-it note detailing a way to stitch up what Pirsig and Phaedrus had cut apart with their knife.
 As he writes, “Its [classical thinking] purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known,”
 my Post-it note refutes, “inspiration is a form of knowledge, providing clarity from the murky.” 

As I delve into reading course material - any course material - I approach it armed with Post-it notes and with analysis in mind. Stay objective and find a focus by which to write a grade-A paper. However, I was thrown a curve ball when I was given the actual assignment: a response paper driven by a thesis. What?!

When it comes to academic writing, I have been trained to keep personal response out of my thesis papers, and I have also been trained to keep theses out of my personal responses. According to my training, they are mutually exclusive and belong to completely different disciplines. I sat for hours doing free writes, but each time they turned out to be either literary analyses with no connection to my response to Pirsig or book reviews with no connection to driving a thesis. Finally, I went to my dad for advice and he put it simply, “just write about an ‘ah-ha’ moment you had while reading the book.” My inner response shouts, “this does not help me; personal response writing is shallow and emotional; whereas thesis writing is analytical and concerned with underlying form!”


Stitching up what Pirsig cut was not difficult, which seemed bizarre to me. Upon being assigned a paper, I realized it was because I had the benefit of having objective distance from his writing. I do not have the life experiences that informed his approach; as the reader, I float beside him in his journey, and I am not burdened by the baggage that comes with it as he does. However, I was asked to write a thesis-driven responsive paper in reaction to the book. Immediately, I was burdened by a load of baggage. In order to appreciate the complexity of Pirsig’s dilemma, I have to encounter it both objectively and intimately; cutting and sewing are both necessary to solve our mutual problem. Within the text, Pirsig has done the cutting; within the attached Post-it notes, I have done the sewing. However, in order to fully experience the mending process one must know how the sewing comes about. Hence, a paper.

Extremes exist because of each other; to be aware of something one needs to be aware of the opposite. Each of the dilemmas mentioned have two points on the same spectrum: classical and romantic are two points on the spectrum of thinking, just as thesis-driven and responsive are on the spectrum of writing, and just as foot massages and sex are on the spectrum of intimacy. Therein, in the most simple terms possible, are their connections.

Now that the connection has been established, it is necessary to understand how that connection comes about. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claims that it is because “to go further and further means to revert again.”
 Author Fung Yu-Lan explains this statement in his book, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy:
So far as human activities are concerned, the limit for the advancement of a man remains relative to his subjective feelings and objective circumstances. . . . If a student having just finished his textbook on physics, thinks that he knows all there is to know about science, he certainly cannot make further advancement in his learning, and will as certainly “revert back.”
This is apparent in the scene from Pulp Fiction previously mentioned. Jules was taking a very classic approach; he divided foot massage and sex. He cut the two apart based on mechanics and implications, foot massage is on the surface and more innocent whereas sex is deeper and more risque. However, he rationalized the issue so much that he neglected the bigger picture -- both actions are forms of intimacy. In neglecting that part, his perspective was shallow, and thus had become Pirsig’s definition of romantic.

How does this all relate back to writing a paper with both responsive and thesis-driven elements? The paper begins with giving an example of how Pirsig’s dilemma can present itself, followed by my understanding of what Pirsig’s dilemma is. Building upon my understanding, I document how society generally approaches the same issue and my immediate reaction to it. This is followed by being presented with my own dilemma: to unite my response with a thesis.  Upon finally realizing that my dilemma was another version of Pirsig’s I was able to formulate the following thesis:  “In order to appreciate the complexity of Pirsig’s dilemma, I have to encounter it both objectively and intimately; cutting and sewing are both necessary in order to solve our mutual problem.” This way I was able to argue a way to unite the dichotomy by providing evidence that it can be united: the nature of the dichotomy’s connection and how to follow that connection. According to the empirical rules of writing a thesis paper, the writer always needs a conclusion summarizing what the paper went over.

 Hence this paragraph, and the unification of responsive and thesis-driven writing.

My Name is Oedipus, and My Life Sucks

The Father: . . . one is born to life in many forms, in many shapes, as tree, or as stone, as water, as butterfly, or as woman. So one may also be born a character in a play. (Pirandello 217)

My name is Oedipus, and my life sucks.

I’m sure you’ve heard the most famous part of my story. Oh, Freud made sure that every amateur psychologist and lit major knew about it. Yep. According to him, I’m a “complex.” I’ve got a one up on Riff from West Side Story: I don’t just have a social disease, I am a social disease.

I’m the guy who killed my father then married my mother. Oh and that’s not all -- we had kids together. Then I gouged my eyes out with her dress pins after I found she had hung herself. Your lady Oprah whom you people today love so much would love to have me on her show. My life is a timeless tale of twistedness, and Sophocles made sure everyone remembered that when he wrote Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. I should have never sought him out.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering something: this guy is from ancient Greece, how does he know about 20th Century things like West Side Story and Oprah? Well, that’s the great thing about being a character: I’m immortal.

“That sounds great!” I bet you’re thinking. Well it’s not. I could call over Albus Dumbledore and he will back me up. (Yeah, I know him. Us characters tend to know each other because a lot of our existence is in people’s minds. Why do you think people dream about going bowling with as C-3PO, Gandalf, and Snow White?) Any person who has not been living under a rock for the last decade and a half will know that the man is a genius, so I’m sure you’ll listen to him. It was he after all who said, “the [Philosopher’s] Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all -- the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.” (Rowling 297) I suppose, though, that the Philosopher’s Stone metaphor doesn’t work very well. Being a character only provides the Elixir of Life, not infinite gold. I get no royalties from productions of Oedpius Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, or any of the pop songs or snide comments in sitcoms made at my expense. Sophocles doesn’t even get anything because he’s dead -- and he died before the invention of copyright laws. I am a public domain character. But that’s beside the point.

Now why am I even bothering to express all this? Well it just so happens that I fell into the mind of a student who recently read Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of An Author. It made her think of me. God only knows why it did. But she thought of me, nonetheless. Having got that signal, I approached her so that she could give me the opportunity to rant, and she agreed to it. It’s pretty obvious that I need it. 

The Father: We want to live.
The Manager: [ironically] For Eternity?
The Father: No, sir, only for a moment . . . in you.

I realize that her documentation of my thoughts will not change much of my existence, as her writing will not reach a huge number of people. Unlike the six characters, my authorship is settled and I have books that solidify my story. I am already eternal, and I have moments of life on stage and in mind. In other words: I’m still going to live through my lovely cycle of murder, incest, and self-mutilation. But now I have a moment to live differently: to not speak in verse, to take a break from discovering what I had done and freaking out about it, to just lie back and reflect like a psych patient. (Freud would love that last part -- that bastard.) You have no idea what a relief it is to have a small outlet for these frustrations.

You may wonder why I bothered approaching Sophocles in the first place if I’m so unhappy with my situation. Frankly it’s hard to recall. Being stuck in that limbo of creation before being written into a play or book is a very confusing time. The Father in Six Characters rambles on a lot for a reason: when you’re in that limbo, your story is much more ambiguous and unsettled. It’s all there inside you, but you have no way to actually know it is real.

The Manager: And where is the “book”?
The Father: It is in us! . . . The drama is in us, and we are the drama. We are impatient to play it. Our inner passion drives us on to this.

Your reality seems illusory. You know you are there, and you know you have a story. The story burns inside you. But you have no words on the page to confirm it. You see no people reenacting it. There are no articles analyzing or criticizing you. There aren’t even any bastard “psychologists” naming social diseases after you. You don’t see any of yourself reflected anywhere. You may feel your swollen feet and the blood squirting out of your eyes, but nobody notices. If you look in a mirror, you don’t see anything. 

It’s nice to have left that part of my existence behind. I say “nice” though because life is not “good.” I don’t take it for granted, but I know life could be better. My reality has gone from illusory to elusive. I get some hints of it, but I don’t know where I belong. I exist on page. I exist in people’s minds. But my shadow only appears on stage. I am a part of your world, yet apart from it at the same time. I appear in it every so often, but I don’t get to interact or communicate outside my story. There is plenty to extrapolate from my story, mind you. Thousands of years of literary criticism and analysis have shown that. But everything that is said about me, in the end, goes back to my story. I am incomplete. 

To the source of the problem: my immortality. The Father in Six Characters sums it up nicely:

The Father: . . . he who has had the luck to be born a character can laugh even at death. He cannot die. The man, the writer, the instrument of creation will die, but his creation does not die. And to live for ever, it does not need to have extraordinary gifts or to be able to work wonders. Who was Sancho Paza? Who was Don Abbondio? Yet they live eternally because -- live germs as they were -- they had such fortune to find a fecundating matrix, a fantasy which could raise and nourish them: make them live forever.

Please keep in mind that being a person who is immortal and a character who is immortal are two very different things. A person’s life is a continuing story: it begins with birth and ends with death. Or if you are an immortal person, at least your life constantly moves forward. You don’t have to repeat anything over again. You get to learn from your mistakes. When you wake up, you are in a new day. The moment you live is is fleeting. You are confronted with new things every day. Characters are much more finite. The events we live are made up of what we do in the stories that we appear in. In other words: I get to discover I killed my father and slept with my mother, have a nervous breakdown, and then go gouge out my eyes over and over again into infinity. It gets old.

Now here’s a place where I disagree with The Father. He claims that because we characters have a set, unchanging reality, we are more real. Let me tell you something: that’s crap. I’ll tell you why in a moment, but here is his justification:

The Father: . . . Our reality doesn’t change: it can’t change! It can’t be other than what it is, because it is already fixed forever. It’s terrible. Ours is an immutable reality which should make you shudder when you approach us if you are really conscious of the fact that your reality is a mere transitory and fleeting illusion, taking this form today and that tomorrow, according to the conditions, according to your will, your sentiments, which in turn are controlled by an intellect that shows them to you today in one manner and tomorrow... who knows how?

This is where he reveals himself to not have his story written down yet -- he clearly has a bad case of “the grass is greener on the other side.” If you have been set as long as I have, and have witnessed the world change around your unchanging self for as long as I have, then you know that reality is not fixed. The Father only thinks that it should be because he’s waiting to have his reality set for him. Once the story is written and lives outside of him as well as inside of him, then he can settle in. But once he is settled for a certain period of time, he will see that reality itself, rather than a character’s reality, is constantly changing. That does not make it an illusion. That makes it dynamic. That makes it infinite. That makes it sublime. We characters have no ability to be dynamic unless we change somehow in our story. Even then, we return to what we were before when the story starts over again. No infinity or sublimity for us.

The Father is in denial. I can’t really blame the guy, though. He’s clearly pretty new to all this. The fact is: we are the illusion. We are only fragments of people. Any person can tell you that a person is made up of more than one stand-out event in his or her life. The Father admits this himself when he asks not to be judged for lusting after The Step-Daughter:

The Father: Then we perceive that all of us was not in that act, and that it would be an atrocious injustice to judge us by that action alone, as if all our existence were summed up in that one deed.

Once again, this is how I can tell that he has not has his story written down. There is so much more that goes in to what makes a person who they are. Frankly, I say that people can know that they are real because they change along with the world. In that sense, they are very constant. The fact that their lives are fleeting are what make them real. For characters, this is not so. After the story is written, a character’s existence is summed up in their deeds from that story. How else do you think I became a social disease? I have nothing else besides my story to identify myself. I am the guy who killed his father, married his mother, and gouged his eyes out. That is how the vast majority of the world knows me.

Why, then, would I seek out an author again? If being a character is so lousy, why would I seek to add more narrative crap on my plate? Well, that shows that there is some relief for us: sequels. Now, I will never propose that this vomit of thoughts would qualify as a sequel to Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. However, if we are able to add more to our story in some way, we can add to ourselves. As such, we can piece together new fragments of self and get a little closer to becoming a whole person. We will never get there, of course, but it is a relief for some people to think of me as more than just a social disease. Why else do you think Elphaba approached Gregory Maguire to write Wicked: The Life and Times of The Wicked Witch of the West? She wanted to be more than the evil green woman with a lust for shiny shoes who screeched, “Fly, my pretties! Fly!” and threatened little girls from Kansas and their puppies. Why do you think Harry Potter managed to get J. K. Rowling to write seven books about him? The more that our stories depict, the less lost we are.

So that was your glimpse into a life of a character. I’m not asking for pity like I do at the end Oedipus Rex. I’ve outgrown that. But please keep all this in mind when you encounter us in books, plays, movies, or pictures. Just know that we want to be more. And know that you can make us more.

My name is Oedipus, and now my life sucks a little less.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Second Star Series, Part 4 - Peter's Heroism

You know you are a literature major when you see an essay on a syllabus and get excited because it is your favorite “lit crit” essay — as I did when I saw “On Fairy Stories” on the syllabus.
As much as I would like to discuss “On Fairy Stories,” however, class discussion got me thinking about something entirely different. I cannot deny that something was really bothering me, and I believe here to be the best place to let it out.
Even before we read Peter and Wendy, class has often raised the question of Peter’s heroism. His conceit, selfishness, and lack of attention to consequences have many people claiming he is thoroughly unheroic. The problem with this understanding, though, is that it claims heroism is based on personality rather than choices or actions. Additionally, this understanding does not help us to understand the significance or impact of heroism, which is particularly important to literary discussion.
I will check myself, however, and note that hero studies in mythology have long been a preoccupation of mine. I have long believed that understanding a Joseph Campbell-like hero pattern is much more productive to literary understanding than labeling various personality traits as heroic. As such, I am biased.
According to a Campbell understanding of heroism, The hero and his or her path is defined by actions and choices rather than by personality traits, as the dictionary would have it. The simplest definition Joseph Campbell could describe in The Hero with a Thousand Faces was this: “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life enhancing return” (Campbell 35). The other 390 pages of the book emphasize the importance of self discovery, the nature of dichotomies, and the influence of actions for personal gain versus societal gain -- among much, much more. Essentially, a hero is called to adventure, crosses the threshold to a sequence of trials through which a revelation is gained, and returns to society with new power.
Peter repeats this cycle over and over, as he goes back and forth between our reality and Neverland. An argument against his heroism would be that his forgetfulness prevents him from learning and making a difference in society. However, he unconsciously makes an incredible impact around him, which fulfills his heroic role by changing the world around him. 
Anyhow, I blew that steam out, and needed it. I would like to see us distinguish these notions in class more, as discussion would be more productive.

Second Star Series, Part 3 - Mary Martin's Peter Pan

I grew up with musical theatre, and I have long loved it. However, I did not love this musical. Though Mary Martin is a lovely singer, this production is not Barrie. Normally, I am very forgiving of dramatic license, as artists who do not take full ownership of their adaptations frequently fail in their endeavor. However, this production claims to be Barrie and fails dismally.
Two main problems are responsible for this production’s failure: unbelievability and poorly-written songs. The actors’ over-the-top performances make no attempt at believability, which is antithetical to one of the play’s themes: belief. Additionally, few of the songs added to Barrie’s script develop story or character. Rather, they are gratuitous songs placed for the sake of filling time, which is sloppy musical theatre.
Barrie’s script and stories written about Peter Pan pulse with belief, and this production makes absolutely no attempt at believability As noted in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, flight depends on believing: “the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it. The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply that they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings” (Barrie 16). Looking at the play’s script, belief is life-giving:
Her light is growing faint, and if it goes out, that means she is dead! Her voice is so low I can scarcely tell what she is saying. She says — she says she thinks she could get well again if children believed in fairies! . . . Do you believe in fairies? Say quick if you believe! If you believe, clap your hands (Barrie 137).
Viewed in light of theatre as a medium, this passage is particularly illuminating. Plays come to life when they are believable. This production simply is not. The actors’ performances are incredibly contrived, unnatural, and overdramatic. They make no attempt at believability, and the performance is farcical, which is antithetical to the Peter’s and Neverland’s essence. 
Aside from incongruity with the play, the contrivance is incredibly condescending. The obvious play-acting chosen over real attempt at capturing character seems to be aimed at pleasing the child audience. However, such tactics give very little credit to children’s intelligence and taste. I took the liberty of reading ahead to C. S. Lewis “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” and he notes that writing material simply because one believes kids will like it is a sure formula for disaster:
The lady in my first example, and the married man in my second, both conceived writing for children as a special department of 'giving the public what it wants*. Children are, of course, a special public and you find out what they want and give them that, however little you like it yourself (Lewis 1).
Lewis notes especially the “however little you like it yourself,” portion. He notes that a good children’s story is enjoyed across age barriers: “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story. The good ones last” (Lewis 2). This production of Peter Pan, by Lewis’ terms, is bad.
My second grievance against this production concerns the songs. As the late lyricist Howard Ashman, famous for Little Shop of Horrors and The Little Mermaid, was famous for noting: songs in musical theatre always develop the story. Gratuitous songs placed for the sake of time are a waste and take away from the production. Numbers like “Cleverness,” “I’m Flying,” and the Indian numbers do nothing for developing story or character, and are thus an entire waste of time. “Never Never Land” in particular stands out because it clearly was placed to show off Mary Martin’s soprano rather than contribute anything to developing Neverland itself. That we kept fast-forwarding through the songs during class is particularly illuminating of the waste of time that they are.
My sentiments do not rise from prejudice against musical theatre, as I do not have any. They arise because this production is terrible.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Second Star Series, Part 2 - Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

This was not my first adventure with Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Traversing the story once again, I came across many familiar landmarks: Peter’s flight from his room forgetting he is no longer a bird, his exile on the island after losing faith in flying, building the thrushes’ nest, the nightgown sail, the fairy house, Maimie’s adventure, and of course Peter’s barring from his mother and replacement by a sibling. New sticky notes and highlights added to and refined the old, and I mapped many new ideas on the pages. One landmark stood out among the others, however, as I had paid it little attention before. It likely grew during the time passed between readings just so I would not ignore it again. How could I have done before when it stands out so much from the rest of the story’s landscape? The landmark I refer to is the scene where Maimie, Tony, and their mother bestow Maimie’s dream goat to Peter.
Her mother knew a way, and next day, accompanied by Tony (who was really quite a nice boy, though of course he could not compare), they went to the Gardens, and Maimie stood alone within a fairy ring, and then her mother, who was a rather gifted lady, said —
‘My daughter, tell me, if you can,
What you have got for Peter Pan?’
To which Maimie replied —
‘I have a goat for him to ride,
Observe me cast it far and wide.’
She then flung her arms about as if she were sowing seed, and turned round three times.
Next Tony said —

‘If P. doth find it waiting here,
Wilt ne’er again make me to fear?’
And Maimie answered —
‘By dark or light I fondly swear
Never to see goats anywhere’
This section stands out from the rest of the narrative because magic is presented so ritualistically, where it is more natural in the rest of the story. Fairies do not have to perform a ritual to disguise themselves as fairies, they simply transform. Fairy weddings distinctly lack the ritual of human weddings, as they simply leap into the each others’ arms. As Barrie recounts: “Brownie held out her arms to the Duke and he flung himself into the, the Queen leapt into the arms of the Lord Chamberlain, and the ladies of the court leapt into the arms of her gentlemen, for it is etiquette to follow her example in everything. Thus in a single moment about fifty marriages took place, for if you leap into each other’s arms it is a fairy wedding. Of course a clergyman has to be present” (Barrie 52). When the fairies return Peter’s ability for flight, they simply tickle his shoulders.
Why, then, must a ritual be performed in the aforementioned scene?
I have examined this landmark. I noted its rhyming couplets primarily composed of iambic hexameter. I charted Maimie’s ritual three turns and arm waves within the fairy ring. I mapped the conversational nature of the couplets. Upon mapping this feature, an idea bubbled out of my head: conversation.
Barrie has clearly landscaped Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens with a mix of magical and mundane. They sit upon and blend into one another throughout the story, just a fairies sit in along the walk disguised as flowers. Such a hidden nature, though, separates the magical and the mundane: they coexist but do not interact. Animating Maimie’s dream goat into physical being, though, requires interaction between the magical and the mundane, and it appears ritual provides a catalyst for that interaction. 
Scrutinizing the scene, one may identify elements of both the mundane and the magical churning in the ritual. Note that Maimie steps into a fairy ring, thus entering the magical or fairy realm. They use poetic language, a characteristically human (mundane) form of communication (seeing as fairies are so lighthearted and against rules, I believe it safe to assume that they are uninterested in the disciplines of prosody). Their conversation thus becomes a conversation between fairy and human. Maimie’s sowing gestures connect them further, as flowers are part of both fairy and human realms. Using that element while turning three times, a number symbolic of transformation, solidifies the new bond.
Of course this landmark may change entirely next time I traverse Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. However, that is how it appears to me now, and I will make what I will of it while it is here.