Of Carelessness, Cruelty, and Contests

Having just finished and turned in my final paper of the semester, I want to revisit briefly my dragon of the day from two weeks ago– cruelty– because I’ve been continuing to think about it often, and it just so happens to fit beautifully with my paper topic. While the details of everything I wrote are certainly not necessary to rehash here, I’ll summarize as concisely as I can to say that my paper was about Daniel Deronda (a Victorian novel by the illustrious and scandalous George Eliot) and about the aesthetics within the novel.

All that to say, my paper considered how we determine (unconsciously or not) how we will treat someone based on his or her physical appearance. *eyes roll into the backs of everyone’s skulls*

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

From the 2002 BBC adaptation of Daniel Deronda

Yes, I realize this is an obvious statement, but I want to think about it in the context of cruelty, and when it is deemed socially acceptable (even if it’s not at all) to be cruel, given someone’s physical/mental/religious/etc state. In Daniel Deronda, cruelty was always sanctioned when the upper-class British characters were dealing with Jewish characters (not for nothing is this considered to be a proto-Zionist novel, as the Jewish characters planned to form their own state where they could be free from such discrimination).

This of course comes in a long line of discrimination. Let’s not forget that it used to be acceptable– even encouraged– for the upper classes to visit the mental hospital of Bedlam and (for a small fee) look at, poke with sticks, and laugh at the baited, caged, and chained inmates. In fact, the highest numbers of visitors to Bedlam usually came around work holiday times. And later in the Victorian era, there was what’s known as slumming: well-to-do Victorians would essentially take ‘tours’ of London’s East End slums as a depraved form of tourism (sometimes dressings as members of a lower class themselves), and they would wander the streets to see and scrutinize slum inhabitants like they were a circus display.

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

a cartoon illustrating slumming from Punch

I’m not convinced society has changed significantly since then. We may have changed the ways we “slum” or “poke,” but the act of cruelty I wrote about two weeks ago (which is still clearly weighing heavily on my mind) was perpetrated in part against this person because the perpetrators believed they could get away with it. When someone has a disability (physical or otherwise) or even when someone is simply non-confrontational to a fault, it’s so easy to tear them apart casually, carelessly, cruelly. When slum inhabitants don’t have a voice, when inmates of psychiatric facilities don’t have a defender, when those that people view as “less than” don’t have a way to speak up, it pushes me to the edge.

I think automatically here of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, whom Fitzgerald describes thusly: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy– they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…” This description makes me shudder, and not just because of Fitzgerald’s flawless prose. Carelessness and cruelty go hand in hand, and it is far too easy to bully and trample the life, the dreams, of someone who may have a more difficult time fighting back.

GREATGATSBYPoster

It also disturbs me that with Bedlam, the donations that ‘tourists’ would give to keep the facility running were at their highest when the hospital allowed visitors to come visit it like a zoo. When they banned visits from outsiders, donations plummeted. Additionally, Victorian ‘slummers’ often did so to entertain themselves, but philanthropists and missionaries often went slumming in the guise of “helping” the poor. They determined the “undeserving” versus the “deserving” poor– who they should help, in other words, and who should be left to flounder and fall by the wayside because they were ‘less than worthy.’ Sometimes, of course, they did help improve conditions in the slums, but it’s not those people I’m thinking of today.

Do we have to see or experience someone’s suffering to know we should help them? Do we have to see the effect our own cruelty has on someone to know we should be careful? If the answer is yes to either question, we should all shudder.

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

The Briar Wood by Edward Burne-Jones

Now, as a final and unrelated side note, I may not have access to the internet for the next two weeks (although hopefully I’ll find some time to log on between now and then). In case I don’t, however, I just wanted to say I haven’t dropped off the face of the earth; I’m just going to the other side of it.

So, while I’m gone, I’m going to post this for all my reader-writers. It’s a short story competition in fantasy, sponsored by Baen Books, and which I will be entering myself. While I realize it is creating more competition for myself by spreading the word about this contest, the best writer will win regardless, and it’s only winning if you’re up against the best. So, happy writing until next time, and here is the link from Baen Books (thanks to Larry Correia for posting this on his blog, as otherwise I might not have seen it!).

Of Storytelling in the Time of Zombies

As I posted last week, I read aloud a portion of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane to one of my classes on the last day of class. Most of my students enjoyed it, but I did receive one comment (although anonymously given) that those fifteen minutes I spent reading aloud were an utter waste of time that could have been spent working on the final writing project for my class or studying for another class. Of course, that student is welcome to his opinion, and I don’t expect all my students to like everything we do in class, as I would be the greatest teacher in all of history if all my students liked all we did in class all the time.

However, his comment did sadden me, but before I go into that, I feel a brief explanation of why I read some Gaiman to my class, is necessary. First, I can. So I did. Second, it’s Neil Gaiman– who (and I think this has been well-established) is a god among men. Third, the way my particular university is set up, it is possible for a student to pass through all four years and get their degree– all without ever reading a word of “literature.” And that, I think, is a real travesty. While there may not be an enormous amount of time in a first-year composition class to devote to reading “literary” things, I wanted to at least share this with them. Gaiman may not be canonical “literature,” but he is far more literary and important (in the truly humble opinion of yours truly) than any number of traditionally read authors.

Lady Godiva by John Collier. See how much we would miss without stories and legends!

Lady Godiva by John Collier. See how much we would miss without stories and legends!

So, this student’s comment made me sad for several reasons, not least of which is that it seems symptomatic of a larger disregard for the humanities at a university-level. When faced with a to-do list, I’m afraid most of us would focus on writing our assignments, studying for an exam, completing a project– and if there was a book (not a textbook, but a book book) we wanted to read, it would be shoved aside until we “had time” for it, until we’d finished everything we “had” to do.

All of which leads me to a question that I contemplate from time to time (get ready for this shift) whenever watching episodes of The Walking Dead: In a zombie apocalypse, would storytellers have a job? Not to mention, would any of the other liberal arts? 

I’m only thinking here of actual job skills, not what someone’s hobbies or skills outside their job may be. If you’re a doctor or a soldier or a farmer, you have very clear marketable skills that would make you an asset to a surviving group. However, what if you teach English or French or art (any of the humanities, really)? Or, what if you are a storyteller or an artist or a musician?

Daryl Dixon, ladies and gentlemen

Daryl Dixon, ladies and gentlemen

I am a firm believer in the power and importance of stories, as stories are how we make sense of our world. Stories are how we relate to each other, how we relate to our world, and how we struggle to piece together meaning out of the senseless, the tragic, the bizarre, or even the mundane. But let’s make this as hypothetical as possible. Because sure, preserving culture and history is important, but let’s not skip ahead to when your survival band has reestablished some form of order and society and has made a semi-permanent camp. What about on the road, on the run?

People still read stories today, obviously, and derive immense enjoyment from them. But when push came to shove, would storytellers be given a priority, or would they vanish to be replaced by more “practical” skills and professions? And for that matter, what about any of the other arts (sculpture, painting, music, dance, drama, foreign languages, etc)? This is all (theoretically) hypothetical, and I don’t have an answer other than to say very vaguely and probably too simplistically that yes, stories should have a place and so should the other arts. While this may be an all-t00-easy answer, I wanted to raise the question, nonetheless.

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
― Philip Pullman

Les Saltimbanques par Gustave Doré

Les Saltimbanques par Gustave Doré

Of Rants and Southern Snuffleupaguses

Today’s post is going to be a rant. Although I’m leaving academia at the end of the semester, I am still finishing this semester, which means I’m still attending my classes, doing my reading, and all that good stuff. So my class last week, which I’ve written about before, is the class on the theorist Slavoj Zizek, whom I personally cannot stand because I think he takes everything that is good and beautiful in the world and then just shits all over it.

The Wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes

The Wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes

Last night, we talked about Zizek’s ideas on belief and fundamentalism, among other things. I am on the opposite end of the economic/religious/political spectrum than almost everyone else in the English department (stereotypes of aggressively liberal English professors are often accurate), and while I certainly don’t consider myself extreme in any of my viewpoints– I’m surprisingly moderate in many ways– I often seem heavily conservative when contrasted with others in the department. Now before I get started, let me just state that some of my best friends are polar opposite me in their beliefs, but what sets them apart is the fact that we actually respect each other- which means we respect each others’ opinions, and we can therefore actually have thoughtful and meaningful conversations concerning them.

Credit to Archer

Credit to Archer

So with all that background out of the way, cue the rant, which will be with comments from the class in bold (yes, this is actual dialogue that was spoken aloud) and then my own reactions here to what they said, in the regular type:

-So then, what can we conclude about people who actually believe?
-That they’re stupid?
-Yes, I think so.

First: not to even define what you mean by belief is remarkably problematic. Given the content of the rest of class, I know they meant religious belief; however, clarify your terms, people, because I also happen to believe in gravity and the power of a winning smile, and I no more think that makes me stupid than do my religious beliefs.

Second: Yes, let’s please actually discount almost all of Western philosophical thought because somehow, our postmodern brains make us vastly more enlightened and intelligent than people in the hundreds and thousands of years that have gone before us who have believed in something. And forget about the millions and billions of people who still believe in a higher power, whatever form that may take, and are alive today– they are just clearly not as intelligent and superior as university academics, and their poor selves just need to be educated out of their stupidity and it must be our jobs as superior intellectual beings to take on this Herculean task of enlightening the ignorant.

Credit to The Big Bang Theory

Credit to The Big Bang Theory

Third: Let’s assume we’re just talking about religious belief, then. Does belief nullify all doubts? Does belief mean we just know? Does belief mean blind acceptance without question or thought? I hardly think so. Belief means faith, which readily leaves room for doubts and questions which we may or may not find the answers to when we want them. Doubts make faith, make belief, stronger- not weaker, and certainly not stupid.

Fourth, and briefly: No one is stupid. There are people who are ignorant of certain information, and there are willfully ignorant people who refuse to consider that another perspective might have any value, but I would think long and hard before I went around just calling people (and their beliefs) stupid.

-So it was only recently pointed out to me that when I think of the other end of the political spectrum, I just automatically assume the image of a conservative redneck, and only recently did I realize what a stereotype I’m making by assuming that.

I’m glad this was pointed out and realized, but the fact that it had to be- especially to someone who prides himself on being an intellectual and a critical thinker- is astounding in a way I don’t know how to verbalize. It is symptomatic of the fact that for the most part, everyone in that class has become entirely too comfortable in their academic bubbles, where they assume their peers must obviously think the same ways they do, which means they can stereotype those who hold opposite opinions as stupid, uneducated, half-toothless, redneck hicks.

Well. They could not be more wrong. Now, am I partially to blame for this comfort on their part? Absolutely, and I regret that I haven’t made myself more vocal in that particular class just because I struggle with being incoherent and flustered when I am as frustrated as I have been on Thursday nights. I accept that responsibility. Is it still incredibly insular on their part to assume that a young, intelligent, educated, classy Southern woman such as myself is a Snuffleupagus? You bet your sweet bottom.

Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street

Mr. Snuffleupagus from Sesame Street

[during a discussion of how everyone has a different perspective, a different perception, when looking at the same thing, and how this often leads to miscommunication because we cannot ever understand anything aside from our own individual viewpoints]: So when we read Hitler, everyone reads their perception of Hitler.

Finally, we reach this point. There is no ‘perception’ of Hitler and what he did. If I asked everyone in that room if what he did was evil and wrong, I bet no one would say they disagreed with that statement. And regardless of whether this comment was intended in jest or in all seriousness, to even suggest that there are different ways of reading what Hitler did, should make us all tremble to our cores.

In the postmodern world, experience has become the dictator for what is true, and this should be terrifying. If I declare the only truth I know to be the truth I experience myself, how limiting that is to my world– not to mention how it completely nullifies the idea of any Truth. And before too long, “my experience is true” will become “my experience is truer than yours, therefore I am right” will become “I am right therefore what I say is true.”

Again, I want to point out that I only intend this as a rant against those so entrenched in their own opinions that they willfully and eagerly refuse to consider anything from another perspective, and who can’t understand how there could possibly be other humans worthy of respect who might have ideas different from their own. When did it become okay to insult and belittle not just the opinions of others, but the actual persons themselves?

More Words of Wisdom

More Words of Wisdom

Of Second-Guessing and Grace

As I believe I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I always have such mixed feelings by the end of each week that it can be as confusing as it is frustrating. My class on Victorian literature this week left me so elated yet so frustrated that to others in the class, the idea of being passionate about such a subject seemed as foreign a concept as that there might be life on other planets in the universe. I get it, Victorian literature isn’t for everybody– but does that mean there’s nothing you can learn from a literary era or genre not your specialty? Just because something isn’t your personal preference doesn’t mean it can’t teach you something– and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is somehow beneath you.

But I digress. The point is, my enthusiasm and excitement for the Victorian literature I study every Tuesday night make my forehead wrinkle and my mind do somersaults afterwards, because what if I am making the wrong choice? What if this is what I’m supposed to do, and I am about to waste my talents and passions by leaving school and embarking on a different career that may or may not ever take off? I have felt often lately a sort of panic regarding if I am making the right decision.

Well, my answer to myself is a three-parter. One, let me not forget that all things Victorian would be only one small facet of any future job I might hold in academia, and it is all the rest of it that makes me run screaming. Two, aside from learning other languages, writing fiction is the only thing that I have always been passionate about, that can always get me out of bed on the mornings nothing else will, that excites me when I contemplate doing it for the rest of my life. And three, I keep thinking of these two quotes from the writings of Isak Dinesen (who wrote stories of such simplicity and elegance and beauty that everyone should read them). The first quote is from the short story “The Diver”:

“For God does not create a longing or a hope without having a fulfilling reality ready for them.”

In other words, and in far less beautiful words, I have my desires for a reason. And maybe my longings, my deepest yearnings, won’t find fulfillment in this particular life; I certainly hope they do, but even if they don’t, that doesn’t mean they will never find fulfillment, that they will never be satisfied. And it also does not mean that I should not pursue my longings and desires with everything I have.

Photo by Alexandre Deschaumes

Photo “In Longing Spirit” by Alexandre Deschaumes

The second Dinesen quote is from “Babette’s Feast” (which, incidentally, was made into a beautiful movie in 1987):

“We tremble before making our choice in life, and after having made it again tremble in fear of having chosen wrong. But the moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite. Grace . . . demands nothing from us but that we shall await it with confidence and acknowledge it in gratitude.”

So sure, let me try to follow up that quote with words of my own. I have made my decision, and I am very at peace with that decision. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to freak out about it from time to time, but I have to remember– as we all have to remember after making choices, good or bad, right or wrong– there is grace to cover our choices, and it is infinite.

Movie Still of Babette's Feast

Movie Still of Babette’s Feast

“I won’t tell you that the world matters nothing, or the world’s voice, or the voice of society. They matter a good deal. They matter far too much. But there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands. You have that moment now. Choose!”

-Oscar Wilde

Decision Time

Well, I’ve made my decision. In case it has not been abundantly clear thus far in my blog, I have decided to leave the world of academia and pursue being a writer. It’s been a decision a long time in the making, but I finally said it out loud to someone within the department at my university, and it suddenly became very real.

After I announced my decision to leave academia to this person in my department, I was surprised to find that on that same day– wholly unrelated and unprompted– a number of people asked me about what I was doing in the upcoming academic year. While I told each person who asked, it solidified more and more for me that I am switching careers, cities, states, and a whole lot of other terrifying things.

Retrieved from photobucket.com

Retrieved from photobucket.com

So, the plan is to move back to the South, get a job doing something to pay the bills, and work on writing and getting published. A vague plan, I realize (and also obviously so, given the brevity of this post), but I figure the only way to keep myself from going crazy is to take things one step at a time. I am both excited and terrified, but I also feel remarkably (and rather surprisingly) at peace with my decision. The only thing I’m not sure about is how to get through this next month of hellish work with anything close to motivation since I know I will be leaving. However, I like to finish strong and finish well, and my Victorian class is my delight, so that at least will be no trouble. The rest of it, day by day. I’ll get there, and then– forward!

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Addendum to Clothes are just Clothes

Just a few quick thoughts today, mostly to follow up on my post last week about performance: The very notion of identity performance seems condescending because it seems (and is) the brainchild of people who live only in their heads with no real referents in the real world. It seems to arise from a very privileged position, and it also assumes that other, less ‘intelligent’ or less educated people simply do their ‘performances’ without knowing it because ‘bless their hearts, they are just playing their roles like we all are, only they don’t know it because no one has explained it to them and come to enlighten them’– which is why I find it offensive as well as wrong.

This identity performance idea also implies that there is no genuine self, because we are always consciously or unconsciously performing, which leaves no time for just ‘being.’ If you believe that you have no genuine self (as some academics purport to), and that your identity is just a reflection of other people’s and your own projections/expectations/etc., that makes me truly sad. Even when we do put on masks to ‘perform,’ that does not mean that the performance is not also part of our ‘self,’ and more importantly, that implies in its very conception that there is something to mask– that there is a self we wish to cover up, in whole or in part. I think the reason for that masking is in many ways self-protection, and if we are seeking to protect, then there is clearly something to be protected: a genuine self that we fear people will reject, hurt, or judge.

That’s all my thoughts for today’s addendum to last week’s post, but here are some beautiful Pre-Raphaelite paintings I think everyone should see (and which are also a reward for slogging through all my thoughts here with me):

"Boreas" by John William Waterhouse

“Boreas” by John William Waterhouse

"The Beguiling of Merlin" by Edward Burne-Jones

“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones

"Gather ye rosebuds" by John William Waterhouse

“Gather ye rosebuds” by John William Waterhouse

“GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.”

-Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of time”

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.

Image

“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?

Image

“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