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.

Second Star Series, Part 1 - Sleeping Beauty

Though class is focused on Peter Pan, introduction via Sleeping Beauty got some thoughts churning. Forgive my idée fixe: watching a Disney animated feature always gets my thoughts churning. Class discussion only furthered this impulse
To be honest, these thoughts bubbled some time ago. I have long been curious about and fascinated by Maleficent’s and Princess Aurora’s connection. However, I have not had the opportunity to flesh them out in a formal setting.

Maleficent and Aurora are a unique hero/villain pair in the Disney canon, as no other duo is so clearly connected aesthetically. Notice their angled faces, high cheekbones, distinctly arched eyebrows, upturning eyes, red lips. Though not apparent in these screenshots I took, their body construction is also similar, as both are tall, slender, and willowy. 
Further, they exhibit similar body language, as both demonstrate upright carriage and grace characteristic of classical ballet. Scholar Elizabeth Bell identifies balletic movement as the pinnacle of youthful feminine beauty and “princessisity” in her article “Somatexts in the Disney Shop.” 
"The markers of class, however, are covertly embodied in the metaphors of classical dance. Royal lineage and bearing are personified in the erect, ceremonial carriage of ballet and manifested not only in the dance sequences, but in the heroines’ graceful solitude and poised interaction with others. Classical dance carriage and royal bearing are interchangeable in Disney animation” (Bell 111).
Both are undeniably beautiful — though today’s society would likely encourage Maleficent to get some sun.
Maleficent’s and Aurora’s similarity’s significance would be dismissed by some for two reasons: they share the same supervising animator and the film’s overall design aesthetic was somewhat constraining for the animators. Marc Davis was then Disney’s go-to female lead animator, having famously supervised Tinkerbell, Cinderella, and Cruella DeVill as well. By no means, however, was Davis a one-note artist, having designed many characters for Bambi, supervised Brer Rabbit in Song of the South, and designed the audio-animatronic pirates for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Davis’ characters display such a vast range of design that attributing their similarity to sharing him as a supervisor would be rather spurious. Davis clearly had the ability to construct diverse characters. Some may counter, however, that Sleeping Beauty’s medieval design aesthetic limited Davis’ choices when designing the Maleficent and Aurora. There is some merit to this argument, as Davis and his contemporaries all expressed frustration with the strict, sweeping graphic design chosen for the film. Background painter Eyvind Earle was selected to design the film’s overall design. Drawing inspiration from the famous unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, Earle chose an angular flavor to style the film like a medieval tapestry. Such a style had not been seen in previous Disney features, as Walt had long favored a more rounded, fleshy, living aesthetic. As such, Davis and the other animators were working with a style they were not used to and was also very strict. If a character’s design deviated at all from the angular style, the film’s look would not have a cohesive whole — which Walt would have deemed highly unacceptable. Viewing the range of character construction exhibited in the film, however, reveals that the constraints did not hinder the artists. Though Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather are very similar, being squat, round, and dressed the same, they are highly individual designs. Each has a different body shape, facial construction, and coloring.

Though likely unconscious, Maleficent’s and Aurora’s similar design did not occur randomly. They are two sides of the same beauty: maidenhood. As a young woman, Aurora clearly stands on the threshold of sexual maturity, preparing to move on to motherhood and cronehood. Maleficent is obviously older, as she appears in the same form when Aurora is a baby. What she has done, however, is refuse to move on to motherhood and cronehood. Thus, she preserves feminine power for herself rather than bestowing it on others, as the good fairies have done and Aurora will supposedly do. Such a construction condemns this life path as evil and unnatural.
There is so much more to be said. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and one second of film requires 24 drawings, then it is quite clear that I have barely scratched the surface with these musings. However, I shall let them lie here for now and likely tackle them more in depth at another time. I believe I have rambled on a little too long for a quick response paper as it is. Needless to say, though, these thoughts needed to come out. Prepare similar musings when we screen Peter Pan.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Traversing a Landscape for New Femininity: Olga Broumas’ Little Red Ridinghood and Grimms’ Little Red Cap

Fairy tales are major contributers to cultural memory. Their various incarnations flesh out archetypes, transmit values, and provide morals across generations. Few people have not heard, read, or seen some version of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Little Red Ridinghood. Though their incredible ubiquity may tempt us to label them “timeless tales,” that would not be an accurate statement. Fairy tales themselves are constantly changing, as is their nature. While certain characters and basic plot structure have remained in tact, the real substance of the stories change with every new incarnation. At least that is how they started out. Fairy tales began with oral storytellers who shaped narratives according to their audience. In his essay entitled, “Breaking the Disney Spell,” renowned fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes recounts, “The tales came directly from common experiences and beliefs. Told in person, directly, face-to-face, they were altered as the beliefs and behaviors of the members of a particular group changed” (Zipes 22). The stories’ essences, their lessons and values, changed with every telling. This malleability made them inclusive to all, as storytellers could shape their material to fit their audience. Additionally, the fact that the stories were listened to rather than read from a page made them a communal experience. With the invention of the printing press and increased literacy, the fairy tale experience changed completely. Spoken folk tales became literary tales preserved on paper. In their written format, they became private experiences rather than communal, and they froze to static stories rather than malleable narratives. Literary tales also encouraged classism, as Zipes recounts, “. . . the genre of the literary fairy tale was institutionalized as an aesthetic and social means through which questions and issues of civilité, proper behavior and demeanor in all types of situations, were mapped out as narrative strategies for literary socialization” (Zipes 23). In printing, the tales lost what they originally were. However, printing was not a total curse, as it allowed for the tales’ preservation. The attitudes surround preservation, though, are another matter. So much focus may be put into preserving the “original,” that any attempt to rework them is often considered a violation. Zipes comments on this issue when he says:
There has always been a danger that the written word, in contrast to the spoken word, will fix a structure, image, metaphor, plot, and value as sacrosanct. For instance, for some people the Grimms’ fairy tales are holy, or fairy tales are considered holy and not to be touched. How did this notion emanate? To a certain extent it was engendered by the Grimm’s and other folklorists who believed that the fairy tales arose from the spirit of the fold. Yet, worship of the fairy tale as holy scripture is a petrification of the fairy tale that is connected to the establishment of correct speech, values, and power more than anything else (Zipes 26).
In other words, preserving the words on the page is not the same thing as preserving the fairy tales themselves. There is no such thing as an “original version” of a fairy tale. There is an original intent to telling them: addressing everyone rather than the few. By tackling fairy tales in her poems, Olga Broumas fosters this very attitude.

Broumas’ fairy tale poems spotlight particular, often ignored, meanings from the literary tales, changes those meanings entirely, or sometimes both. She takes up the mantle of the oral narrator by tailoring the narratives depending on the story she wishes to tell or the audience she wishes to address. In that way she is very true to the fairy tales’ original malleable nature. Also, adopting this practice breathes new, more contemporary, meanings into the static texts. As Zipes noted, the literary tales’ sacrosanctity has made the values they engender static along with the tales themselves. They have become antiquated. Broumas translates them to contemporary audiences. She also addresses audiences that the tales ignored. Speaking specifically of Little Red Ridinghood, Broumas spotlights the exclusivity of traditional notions regarding femininity.

Womanhood has traditionally been depicted in three stages: maid, mother, crone. Broumas’ Little Red Ridinghood takes that depiction and places it under a critical microscope. Using the Grimms’ literary tale, Little Red Cap, as a framing device, Broumas illuminates some complications with this depiction and with the scare tactics of the tale itself: womanhood, as it is traditionally understood, is ultimately male-centric rather than female-centric. The speaker begs for an understanding of womanhood that can accommodate women like herself, women who involve themselves with women rather than men. In order to fully inhabit femininity, a woman must live all three stages maid, mother, and crone. Without a man, though, a woman never passes the maiden stage. After all, becoming a mother is not a one-person game. Further, that male involvement must result in a child.  Broumas spotlights this oft forgotten figure involved in this depiction, and asks readers to consider their effect. They play an important role, as they fuel the cycle of womanhood, but this role essentially denigrates them to a product rather than an individual or a part of the life-cycle. By focusing much of the poem on birth, Broumas ponders babyhood and birth circumstance itself as a defining factor for femininity. Focus on birth is especially illuminating because Little Red Cap goes through the birth cycle during the course of her tale. Her depiction illuminates that the three-part femininity is inextricably linked to male sexuality, as it begins with sexual awakening rather than childhood. She asks us to consider how childhood and birth factor in. For the speaker, being delivered by a midwife rather than a doctor is a defining factor for her character. Little Red Cap experiences birth from a man and is delivered by a man, and is thus born a product for men. The speaker, on the other hand, is not tied to men in this way because she is guided to life by a woman, rather than pulled to life by a man. Though this frees her of being tied to male sexuality, it leaves her lost when it comes to understanding herself as a woman. She seeks an understanding that can she can fit into, for, according to traditional understanding, she is not fully a woman and can never be.

Broumas astutely points out that the traditional understanding of womanhood is defined more by men and children than women themselves. If a woman is to traverse the maid, mother, crone landscape, she requires a male guide and a child reward, else she is stuck in the maiden phase for her entire life. Being stuck in this place, she can never fully inhabit what it truly means to be a woman. Male involvement shall be discussed later. Attention, for now, is focused on the child. Broumas notes that the product of the maid, mother, crone trinity is often ignored. According to this prescription for femininity, giving birth to a child is a requisite part of being a woman. However, the significance the child holds is never elucidated. It is more a product than an affecting being. Interestingly, Broumas’ poem appears to be in the same line with that thinking. The child’s effect is only elucidated in one short section, 
. . . I have no daughter 
to trace that road, back to your lap with my laden 
basket of love . . .
Viewed in the light of this line, the child exists to connect the generations. When a maiden transitions to mother, her mother may transition to crone. As such, the child is the propellent. However, it is not given much more status or effect. Frankly, it arguably has more effect in absence than presence. While it is certainly important, it has a very ambiguous significance when it is present. After all, childhood is not even considered part of the woman’s depiction. It begins with maid, the time when a virginal woman becomes prepared for sexuality. The time leading up to that, though, and its significance is ignored. Broumas notes the flaw in this understanding by focusing on birth circumstance and how it may mould life circumstance. Birth by a woman symbolically ties the baby to one path, and birth by a man symbolically ties the baby to another. Significance of these ties will be elucidated later. Attention, for now, must be directed in Broumas’ questions about this stage in life. She proposes that birth and childhood play more of a role in determining a woman’s self-definition than it is generally portrayed. After all, by focusing the beginning of womanhood with sexual awakening, women are indelibly tied to sex -- and not much else. 

Broumas’s poem implies that men’s involvement in birth symbolically ties womanhood’s connection to male sexuality. She borrows this idea directly from the Grimms’ tale, as Little Red Cap is delivered by a huntsman from the male wolf. Little Red Cap thus goes through two births: one from a woman that determines she is a woman, and one from a man that determines her relationship with them. Though more obvious sexual content was expurgated by the Grimms in their documentation of the oral tradition, the sexual overtones implicit in this scenario remain: Little Red Cap is reborn for male “consumption.” Broumas emphasizes this point by embodying both the wolf and huntsman in the notably semen-colored doctor:

the white-clad doctor and his fancy claims:   microscope,
stethoscope, scalpel, all
the better to see with, to hear,
and to eat . . .

These lines are a clear reference to the wolf’s famous, “the better to...” lines. In giving the doctor the wolf persona, it implies that the male doctor has a kind of ownership over the baby, a desire to eventually “consume” it.  Interestingly, Broumas omits one of these lines from her poem:

“‘Oh, Grandmother, what big hands you have!’
‘The better to grab you with” (Grimm 95).

Broumas’ white-clad doctor uses forceps rather than hands to deliver the baby. When actually delivering the baby, the doctor is much more like the huntsman: very hands off. The huntsman essentially performs a c-section on the wolf:

He [the huntsman] took aim with his gun, and then it occurred to him that the wolf could have eaten the grandmother and that she could still be saved. So he did not shoot but took some scissors and started cutting open the sleeping wolf’s belly. After he made a couple of cuts, he saw the little red cap shining forth, and after he made a few more cuts, the girl jumped out and exclaimed, “Oh, how frightened I was! It was so dark in the wolf’s body” (Grimm 95).

Note that the huntsman simply cuts, and Little Red Cap emerges on her own, so he does not have to be hands-on in the way the midwife is. Additionally, his silent assault on the wolf is incredibly forceful. Broumas’ use of the forceps carries similar forceful implications as the huntsman’s c-section.

. . . High forceps
might, in that one instant, have accomplished
what you and that good woman failed
in all these years to do:   cramp
me between the temple, hobble
my baby feet.

Broumas implies that the forceful forceps, though being very hands off, symbolically marks the baby for men. Notice that she says the forceps do what the midwife’s hands can not: hobble her feet. The word “hobble” has a couple definitions. The first means “to walk in an awkward way, typically because of pain from an injury” or “to cause a person or animal to limp.” The second definition is more telling to this poem: “tie or strap together the legs of a horse or other animal to prevent it from straying.” Initially, this use of “hobble” seems to affirm keeping the speaker on the proverbial path away from men. However, considering the consuming and owning characteristics of the doctor, it would be more accurate to say that he would have hobbled her to men. This is very in keeping with the spirit of the Grimms’ tale. The real message of the story is more about controlling the circumstances of male “consumption” rather than never straying from the path, as Broumas’ speaker does. A story point often ignored is what follows from Little Red Cap’s male birth: she knows how to deal with “wolves” after this and is able to outsmart one during another trip to grandmother’s house. This implies that straying from the path is necessary at some point in order to “become a woman” -- stray from the path with the right man under the right circumstances. In ending the story this way, Little Red Cap’s story is less about “protecting her shroud” and more about “mastering the wolf.” One must stray off the path at least once to do this.

The speakers birth at the hands of a midwife, rather than the forceps of a doctor, frees her from being branded as an object for male sexuality. She has a more say in her own making, as she comes out of her mother naturally guided by hands rather than pulled by instruments. Note that the speaker first recounts her emergence, rather than the midwife’s guidance:

. . . I slipped out like an arrow, but not before

the midwife
plunged to her wrist and guided
my baffled head to its first mark. . . .

Broumas’ choice of structure here puts more emphasis on the speaker’s autonomy rather than the midwife’s guidance. The speaker is self-determined in this manner of birth, and she would not be by a man’s delivery. Further, the woman’s hands free her from the mark of men, as there would be no indents from the forceps left on her. She is free to define herself for herself and as a woman rather than as a man’s possession.   The speaker recounts that she lives this path and never submits herself to men. This is evident when she says:

 . . . I kept

to the road, kept
the hood secret, kept what it sheathed more
secret still.    I opened
it only at night, and with other women
who might be walking the same road to their own
grandma’s house, each with her basket of gifts, her small hood
safe in the same part.

Broumas’ language implies that the hood is the speaker’s hymen and it is never broken by a man. The only people she exposes herself to are other women who also refuse to learn the lesson of Little Red Cap, who refuse to stray from the path and learn to tame the wolves. In this way, the speaker is completely autonomous to herself. The problem, though, is that she cannot inhabit womanhood in a way that the rest of society understands. As she is, she is incomplete.

I grow old, old

The speaker simply grows old, not into a crone, a wise woman, or a grandmother. She is simply old, and nothing more
without you, Mother, landscape
of my heart.

Though it sounds like the speaker tells of being apart from her mother, it speaks to a different mother. It speaks to the mother she never became. She has gone without that stage in life. The life’s landscape she was “supposed” to traverse has been broken, as illustrated by the enjambment between “landscape” and “of my heart.” She reiterates these lines near the poem’s end, but adds another element to her loss:

. . . I’m growing
old, old
without you.     Mother, landscape
of my heart, architect of my body . . .

She continues the same lines, but she adds, “architect of my body.” Not only did her mother build her body, but her body was built to be a mother. In being herself, she neglects a fundamental part of her being. She seeks to find a way to live this role and more definitely define her womanhood. This is especially apparent when she asks:

. . . what other gesture
can I conceive

to make with it
that would reach you . . .

She pleads for another way to understand herself and reach her womanhood in a more visceral way. In her plea, she tells us that women need a way to understand themselves based on themselves rather than others.

When Olga Broumas’ poem Little Red Ridinghood and the Brothers’ Grimm literary tale Little Red Cap are read together, they show that society lacks an understanding of womanhood than enables women to define themselves independently of others. Little Red Cap sets up the traditional progression from maid, to mother, to crone. The tale specifically deals with maidenhood’s definition: sexual awakening. Though often understood as a precautionary tale against men, close reading of Little Red Cap reveals that it calls for women to learn how to “tame” selected men rather than ward all of them off. Little Red Cap’s birth from the wolf by the huntsman’s delivery marks her for men. Broumas hones in on this story point and fleshes its symbolism out as well as the implications carried in that symbolism. Her vivid depiction of a male-doctor’s delivery by pulling the baby out with forceps ties the babies to male sexuality. Note that the doctor has qualities of the wolf, Little Red Cap’s depiction of male sexuality, and has characteristics of the huntsman, who delivers Little Red Cap in a very hands-off manner. This is starkly contrasted with the speaker’s actual birth. She is guided to life by the midwife’s hands, and she is able to emerge on her own accord rather than by force. In coming to life this way, she is not marked by men and nor hobbled to them. She has an autonomy and freedom from men. While this is certainly a gift, her involvement with women rather than men has kept her from ever fully inhabiting her womanhood in a way that society understands. In never having a child, she cannot progress through the cycle nor can she live out the function her body was built for. In being herself, she is less of a woman by traditional prescription. She yearns for a way to define her femininity, but she lacks a formula to do so. Hence, Broumas asks us to find one for her.

Works Cited
Broumas, Olga. “Little Red Ridinghood,” In Beginning with O. 67-68. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Little Red Cap.” In The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. 93-96. New York: Bantam Books, 2003.
Zipes, Jack. “Breaking the Disney Spell.” In From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Print.

Wondering In Wonderland

“Little kids make the best philosophers. They always ask, ‘why.’”
I remember doing this a lot when I was kid. I also remember my parents saying, “because I said so,” a good deal of the time. My old philosophy teacher made a good observation, though. It’s one that Lewis Carroll, and in turn Walt Disney, seemed to have made themselves: kids’ curiosity make them masters of reflection.

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, aside from recounting a little girl’s journey in a whimsical world, provides a rich philosophical enquiry. It ponders the bounds of logic, the power of language, the temperament of time, and the emptiness of etiquette among many other things. Alice, as a bright but bored young student, is the perfect adventurer for Wonderland. Her sharp reason makes her well-equipped to deal with the law of the land: logic.

Now, Wonderland has the bad reputation of being nonsensical. In actuality, the people of wonderland despise nonsense. One may witness an instance of logic’s governance when Alice shuts the Queen of Hearts up -- which the Disney movie shows is an impressive feat:

The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming “Off with her head! Off with --”
“Nonsense!” said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent. (Carroll 93)
Wonderland is literally a place where people may wonder -- frankly, they have to. Dilemmas frequently arise in Wonderland since its citizens are rather odd. However, these dilemmas must still be solved. For example: how do you behead a disembodied head?
The executioner’s argument was, that you couldn’t cut off a head unless there was a body to cut it off from: that he had never to do such a thing before, and he wasn’t going to begin at his time of life.
The King’s argument was that anything that had a head could be beheaded, and that you weren’t to talk nonsense. (Carrol 99)
In my opinion, the executioner should just chop the head in two: he may not actually behead his victim but he will still get the job done. But that’s beside the point. And I like the Cheshire cat, so I would rather that his head were not cut in two.

Now, how does the master-mutilator of original stories, Walt Disney, handle this sophisticated material? Frankly, he’s not so bad with this one. Disney’s Alice in Wonderland is uncharacteristically faithful to Carrol’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. True, he truncates the story by a lot. There is no Duchess, no Mock-turtle, no Grifon. It goes without saying, though, that he could not include all these scenes and make the film a reasonable length. What scenes he uses from the books are incredibly faithful to their counterparts in the novels, often replicating snippets of dialogue almost verbatim. Note the scene when Alice meets the Cheshire Cat. Here is part of the novel’s version:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a great deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t care much where --” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
Then consider the movie’s dialogue:
Alice: Oh no no no... thank you, but- but I just wanted to ask you which way  I ought to go.
Cheshire Cat: Well, that depends on where you want to get to.
Alice: Oh, it really doesn’t matter, as long as I c...
Cheshire Cat: Then it really doesn’t matter which way you go!
In this way, he is able to retain the whimsical essence of Carrol’s narrative voice. The Disney artists, however, were able to take ownership of the material and build upon it through use of visual cues.
Alice in Wonderland uses the animation medium well, compensating for the lack of narrator through clever visual keys. Since animation shows a story rather than tells it, there are certain elements that are lost from the novel. In the case of Alice, asides from the narrator and visual puns on language structure are some of the most significant losses. Showing a story, though, has elements of its own to offer. One of the most prevalent is color. This is emphasized when the White Rabbit’s watch is destroyed. As the watch begins to combust, the colors on the screen intensify and flash as the camera angles rapidly cut all over the table. Once the Mad Hatter smashes the watch, though, the screen is sapped of all color, intensifying the watch’s destruction and thus making the scene more powerful. The artists made further use of the medium in the scene where Alice meets the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Viewers’ attention is drawn to language when the caterpillar exhales the letters he pronounces. The scene is marked by the usual riddles and inquiry:

Caterpillar: a e i o u... Who are you?
Alice: I- I- I hardly know, sir! I changed so many times since this morning, you see...
Caterpillar: I do not see. Explain yourself.
Alice: Why, I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir, because I’m not myself, you know...
Caterpillar: I do not know.
Alice: Well, I can’t put it anymore clearly for it isn’t clear to me!
Caterpillar: You? Who are you?
Alice: Well, don’t you think you ought to tell me- cough-cough, cough-cough, who you are first?
Caterpillar: Why?
Alice: Oh dear. Everything is so confusing.
Caterpillar: It is not.
Alice: Well, it is to me.
Caterpillar: Why?
Smoke letters play on language in a manner similar to Carroll’s. Drawing audience attention to such play highlights the philosophical themes inherent in the story. It’s simply up to them to play along.

At the same time, though, Disney’s undying desire for his audiences to sympathize with his characters takes away from the film’s enquiry. By adding Alice’s desire to go home and despairing culture shock, the contemplative value is diminished. Her sadness is distracting, and it colors the riddles and inquiries as bullying. Though Alice is just as sharp as she is in the book, she seems to be a victim of inquiry rather than an inquirer. Though it adds a greater emotional arc and energizes the plot, it diminishes one of the key themes of Alice’s adventure.
In the end, however, Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland takes a story that is very much outside Disney’s comfort zone and owns it. Though many ideas may be wrung from the Disney studio’s other films, no other engages in philosophical enquiry so directly. Instead of relying on the usual battle against external factors, Alice must engage with internal conundrums. Disney is able to translate this well, though, by retaining much of Carroll’s dialogue and enhancing it with visual queues. The problem is not in being true to the material in content, but in spirit, as Disney injects emotional factors that distract from it. In that way, we may wonder if Disney is telling us to avoid such wonderment. Or else we might lose our heads.

Is he doing us a favor? Or asking us not to think so much?