Gothic Fiction and Zombies and Other Stuff

I started writing this post in the airport on my way to an academic conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. However, sleep deprivation and thinking better of it, made me wait until after the conference to write this, as what actually happened is likely to be much more interesting than my own anxieties leading up to the conference. I’ve never attended an academic conference before– I’ve attended plenty of lectures but never a weekend devoted to furthering literature in academia. And not only was I attending one, but I was to be a presenting panelist at my first.

For those of you who don’t know, academic conferences consist of students and professors from multiple universities who gather in one location to read papers they have written on a particular subject. (I know that description makes you all want to drop everything and run off to attend such excitement.) Conferences are often organized by theme or literary time period– or even genre– and papers presented follow suit. This particular conference followed the theme of Mardi Gras (most appropriately, given that it is the weekend before said event). More specifically, this conference followed the idea of masks and disguises in literature throughout history. My own paper dealt with how the ideals– and adherents– of the French Revolution crept into England in disguise in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the literary reaction to that. My paper was more specifically concerned with gothic fiction and its use of disguise and subterfuge, particularly as found in this little obscure gothic novel by Isabella Kelly, entitled The Ruins of Avondale Priory, for anyone who might be interested.

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“The Cemetery Entrance” by Caspar David Friedrich

I was anxious going into this conference that it would all be theoretical and a bunch of people living and speaking in their heads. There was some of that, to be sure, but there was also a refreshing amount of papers involving the real and concrete. The first panel I attended dealt with literature in Bangladesh and Libya, and how writers in both countries have been forced at times to conceal or censor their own works due to the political climate. In Libya, before Qaddafi fell from power, any criticism of the regime or its ideology had to be masked and disguised because it meant death for the writer otherwise. Similarly, many poets in Bangladesh who publish their poetry through traditional publishers must censor themselves, but they have more freedom with what they write when they self-publish their poems. I was both awed and impressed by the candor of these presentations and by how much they encouraged grounding oneself in reality and making oneself aware of what is happening in the rest of the world.

Whether in academics or just life in general, it is remarkably dangerous to be so disconnected from the reality most people live in, that you make broad generalizations about people, about politics, about religion, etc. In class the other evening, a peer mentioned how Christianity mattered nothing to her– and she barely caught herself when she initially said that it no longer mattered to anyone in the modern world. Though universities may be brimming with people who claim neither Christianity nor any other religion, that is a small slice of society. Even if it were not a fact that a majority of the world still believes in a god of some kind, to disregard the past– and persistent– influence of Christianity on literature (let alone on any other aspect of culture) would be a mistake. It has guided the development of literature over the past few millennia; whether that literature has arisen in support or defense of it, or against it, is not important. It is– whether one likes it or not– foundational to the way literature and culture has evolved. Even modernists must understand why texts they study say what they do about religion– it is in many ways reactionary to all that has come prior, and if we do not understand our links to the past, how can we understand the present or hope to move into the future?

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“The Ancient of Days” by William Blake

I think my tangent may have just become the main point of this post.

But back to the idea of people living in their heads in academia– the presentations grounded in reality, I enjoyed very much. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on the poetry of Kabir Humayun, as the presenter discussed his pleasure at being able to combine his own creative work with his scholarship (which is generally discouraged, unfortunately). This is not to say theoretical work isn’t useful and important– of course it is– but at some point, I believe it should be connected to reality. Perhaps this is just the pragmatist in me. Every time I found myself swimming in theory in one of the presentations, my mind harkened back to the other conferences/conventions I’ve been to in the past for science fiction and fantasy. Such conventions included panels on the messiest ways to kill zombies, and debunking myths concerning possible apocalypse triggers (as well as which such triggers are nearer to possibility than we might like to think).

Not that all panels should be fun and games, obviously; there are also real, serious issues that literature deals with as well. The same is true– I argue– of genre fiction. Just as genre fiction can be read for for pure pleasure, enjoyment, and as romping good tales, so too can traditionally canonical literature– “classics,” if you will. They can also both address serious issues, though the way in which they address them may vary. For that is what constitutes good fiction– stories remembered and enjoyed long after the pages close. Whether that memory is simply of a bloody good time and/or of truths we will carry with us as we move through our own lives and into other books we read (which, after all, we will always judge by what we have read in the past that has stuck with us– for good or ill): things that have stuck with us, things we have carried, as individuals and as a society.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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“I am half sick of shadows”: Of Academia, Dreams, and Art

So as I’m thinking more about what to do with my life and how to make peace with that decision, I think it’s time for a little trip down memory lane to why I started this Ph.D. program in the first place. When I was getting ready to graduate with my Bachelor’s in English, I of course had to ask myself the question that others had been asking me for the few years leading up to that: what did I plan to do with a degree in English? Teach? I told them, interestingly enough, that I had no aptitude nor desire to teach, and that after all, I had decided not to major in French because what could you do with French besides teach? Instead, I had decided that English was the way to go; obviously, I would find a fulfilling career if I chose that track.

However, rather than immediately trying to find a job upon graduation in editing or publishing, as had originally been my intention, I decided to move across the state and start working on an M.A. in English because after all, what could it hurt? And of course, it also happened to give me a convenient excuse to live in the same city where my then boyfriend would be living when he returned from deployment. This glides over, by the way, what I viewed as the terrifying prospect of entering the “real world” of actual employment as opposed to school, which I’ve always treated as seriously as a job but which has always been less horrifying to contemplate– perhaps simply because my academics have always been one thing about which I have been confident.

So I continued on and got my Masters in English, blissful all the while in the fact that I was reading things I loved and putting off joining the actual world for just a bit longer. Heavens forbid I actually realize that no matter how long I chose to go to school, now was the “real world”– forget this strange concept of my life starting for real one day. So I whittled away at my academic work, was remarkably unsocial for the majority of grad school, and only after I graduated and started spending time with classmates outside of school, did I realize how much I had missed.

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Retrieved from ruthiedean.com

Upon this second graduation, I spent a few months searching for a ‘real’ job, found one, and decided I would lose my mind if I worked much longer in an office from 8-5, M-F. So I took an adjunct teaching position– the glories of which are not my intention to discuss at the moment– at my university, quit my office job, and embarked upon the wonderful world of teaching– the ups and downs of which it is also not my intention to discuss at the moment. To make a long story slightly less long, I decided that I was not bad at teaching, and it also gave me a flexible schedule which I found remarkably appealing. Given these two factors, I decided I could do this teaching thing for a while.

Following a rough split with the aforementioned boyfriend, however, I knew I had to do something that would pay more than an adjunct’s salary, plus I was searching for some sort of independence, and of course what better way to achieve that than to move to a new city, a new state, a new region of the country entirely, and start the stresses of a Ph.D. program without being sure it was what I wanted? (Incidentally, there are approximately a thousand better ways. The particular route I chose is neither recommended nor endorsed in any way.)

There are so many things I could– and will eventually, I’m sure– delineate further, but I’ll just stick with a few important lessons I’ve learned (am learning, think I learned, should have learned, etc.):

1. First off, don’t join a Ph.D. program because you’re looking for independence or because you’re not sure what else to do. Not the best idea.

2. Don’t wait until you finish school to start your life. (This one may seem obvious, I realize, but *insert witty proverb here*).

3. Twenty is far too young an age to settle into something “practical” if it means giving up on your dream (giving up is often– though certainly not always– disguised as putting one’s dream on the back burner, just not focusing on that right now, continuing to pursue that but just when one has spare time, etc.).

Retrieved from victorianweb.org

Retrieved from victorianweb.org

4. Listen to the voices that tell you what you can do, not what you can’t. To the voices that tell you stories are important, that music has a power to uplift like almost nothing else, that foreign languages are a way to connect us to the rest of humanity as well as to make us more aware of ourselves. Not to the voices that observe how we must obviously plan to teach, because what else does one do with an English, French, history, or similar degree? The first thing to get cut in school budgets is often the arts, and the university departments forced most frequently to defend themselves are in the humanities. Are arts less important than the sciences? Is business, is engineering, what we should encourage undergraduates to major in, even if their first love is something else? I recently read a personal narrative by one of my students that was all about how she wanted to be a singer, and how she had auditioned for several singing competitions for national TV but that now, she was going to school to become an orthodontist. She insisted throughout her narrative that she wasn’t giving up on her dream, that she was just going to do this other thing while still pursuing a singing career in her spare time. I had to fight the urge to run into my classroom the next day, screaming incomprehensibly for my students never to give up on their dreams because I believe in them and believe they can do anything they set their hearts on– this lecture may or may not be happening in the near future, but hopefully in a calmer and more understandable pitch of voice.

5. Art matters. My art matters. Your art matters.

“ ‘One must always be careful of books,’ said Tessa, ‘and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.’ ”

-Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel

Wednesday’s Child is Full of Woe

That may be a bit dramatic for an entry title, but it does rather reflect my state of mind on Wednesdays this semester. The title is taken from a nursery rhyme of sorts about the days of the week, which is largely irrelevant to this post but which you can read here if you’re interested (http://www.rhymes.org.uk/mondays_child.htm). The weekday of your birth certainly doesn’t determine your character, of course, but this line from the rhyme always gets stuck in my head on Wednesdays because it’s the day of the week where I do feel somewhat full of woe– or at least full of conflicting emotions.

So, to explain my current attitude on Wednesdays: Tuesday nights, I have a class on Victorian literature, which happens to be one of my very favorite eras to study. So every Tuesday night, I get incredibly excited to talk about what I’ve read for the week; last night, it happened to be Tennyson’s In Memoriam, which is– in my exalted opinion– the greatest, most beautiful elegy about grief ever written. Even though it is a three-hour class, we scarcely touched on even one-quarter of what I wanted to talk about purely because there is so much to discuss that it’s impossible to compress it all into three hours, try as we might. So every Tuesday night, I’m left a bit befuddled by how the passion I have in class for this type of literature, impacts (or should impact) my career goals.

On the other side of Wednesday, however, lurks my Thursday evening class, which I feel is representative of the very worst of academia. We’re studying a particular literary/cultural critic– Slavoj Žižek– who seems to make it his goal to take the apparent meaning of any work of art (books, films, paintings, etc.) and turn it on its head, saying it actually means the complete opposite– that is, if it means anything at all. Although I love dissecting artifacts to get at the heart of what they say to me, I can’t get behind a critic whose only goal from what I’ve read so far is to destroy and tear down supposed ideas of truth embedded in all these artifacts. Of course, this is just one critic and one class, but it is symptomatic of what I see as a larger problem within academia: do we study literature to enjoy and share it, to seek its truths that surpass era and genre? Or do we study literature to break it down into so many pieces that our own intelligence is thereby somehow elevated by destroying someone else’s work, and by evacuating all artistic control and intent of the work’s creator? You can clearly guess which side of academia I fall on.

So today I’m torn, as I’m always torn on Wednesdays, between my passion for a particular era of literature and my desire to create stories of my own. Neither teaching nor storytelling are less important than the other. In a society that is increasingly cynical– though that’s a whole other post– we desperately need both professions to show that there still is truth, as there still is goodness in the world, which I struggle with myself at times to believe. The question isn’t which profession is more noble or better or more realistic that I will obtain a job in– the odds of finding a good tenure-track job with a Ph.D. in English seem remarkably similar to the odds of getting oneself published– but the question is, which I feel more called to do.

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“The Decameron” by John William Waterhouse

I know, I know– why can’t I do both? I don’t like doing anything halfway; I tend to throw myself into things deep-end first, which hasn’t always worked out so well in certain aspects of my life, but I don’t like to do it any other way. There are plenty of people who can divide their attention in this way and do it all, and beautifully. Whenever I try to do that, I feel like I’m cheating; it’s all or nothing for me (for good or ill). So there’s no lovely and stirring conclusion to today’s post– just some meandering thoughts on storytelling and academia and what my own place is within all of that.

The Truth about Dragons: An Introduction

Greetings and salutations, and welcome to The Truth about Dragons. I write this first post simply as an introduction to what I plan this space to be. I intend this site– at least initially, and we’ll see what it evolves into– as a record of my efforts to discover where my passions will take me in life. A daunting and clichéd task, I realize, but so it is. In the last year, I’ve moved from my beloved Georgia up north to join a Ph.D. program in English Literature, and I’m now heavily considering leaving the program to embark full-time on a quest to become part of that club of writers who can actually write for their livings as well as for their passions.

Now, as to the name of this blog– The Truth about Dragons– I owe thanks to G. K. Chesterton, who wrote in Tremendous Trifles, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

For me, dragons take all sorts of shapes and sizes. While it might be easier to spot them in fairy tales and fantasy– which happen to be my favorite genres– that doesn’t mean they don’t exist in real life obstacles and challenges, in people who are real-life villains, in external forces we may not recognize, and sometimes even within ourselves. The truth is, they can be beaten; we tend to forget this because generally, it is only the smallest dragons which can be slain with just one blow. Far more dangerous are the dragons which take years of battling to defeat, and sometimes we may only be part of a dragon-slaying relay team, wearing away at forces too great to defeat on our own and which we may not even see the results of in our own lifetimes. We get singed, burned, and beaten down, and we may not always get the girl– or whatever it is we are after. But that doesn’t mean the possibility doesn’t exist and that we shouldn’t try, with whatever tools we’ve each been given, to battle dragons with our words, swords, humor, hope, and perhaps most of all, a belief in the power of goodness and light to prevail in the end.

“I hope that simple love and truth will be strong in the end. I hope that real love and truth are stronger in the end than any evil or misfortune in the world.”

-Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

http://www.artchive.com/web_gallery/H/Hans-Von-Aachen/St.-George-slaying-the-dragon.html

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