Sunday, March 1, 2015

Death as Temporal Anchor in Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is constantly beset with death.  Death is perhaps the one reliable thing encountered in every chapter of the book.  This phenomenon of death in the narrative is analyzed by Ursula K. Heise in Chronoscisms.  She says, “Benjamin, Kermode, and Brooks all see human time as crucially shaped by mortality” (361).  So this has become a problem of time (which was learned last week, is a very important problem in modern literary theory).  Heise continues, “Narrative time, in their view, is a way of confronting death through the movement toward the ending, understood as a moment of closure that retrospectively bestows meaning on the plot.”  Here is a small sampling of McCarthy from the end of Chapter 4: “The scalped who with the fringe of hair below their wounds…lay like maimed and naked monks in the bloodslaked dust and everywhere the dying groaned and gibbered and horses lay screaming.”[1]  Confronting death and the violence immediately prior to death is something that the reader must constantly do as they read Blood Meridian.  Intuition seems to spark here, and the reader might think that the author had greater intention than a fantastic show of gore in mind.  Though Heise would later go on to overlook and ultimately regard the quotes above as old hat, it is worth considering these statements in light of the omnipresent death in the present novel.  Death is perhaps a way of communicating.  Perhaps it is a way to center the reader in the wanderings of an undetermined narrator.  Certainly there is a greater power afoot here.
Consider how despite the many difficulties that are encountered within this book, especially thirst, only death seems to be so glorified.  Heise completes her explanation of this theory in saying: “Readers live through the one moment in time that they cannot experience in their own lives: the moment just beyond death, which reveals life’s final pattern” (361).  Though there is death all over the place, the reader is still waiting for a particular death – that of the narrator.  This death does not come.  Therefore, despite the constant confrontation with the dead, the reader is not given the satisfaction of the narrator’s demise.  The reader is only teased with it, time and again, as the kid wanders through the desert once more, seemingly about to succumb to the elements.  There are several fights and battles where the kid escapes, always surviving.  Even the confrontation with the judge at the conclusion would seem to mark him for death, or else the death of the judge (being the other reliable character still alive in the story).  Cruel and vulgar as it is, the reader is looking for death.  In particular, the reader is looking for the closure of death and the wisdom that would be expected from the event.  The reader is never given this, only teased with it.  To think of how many times that the kid should have died but managed to survive – it’s absurd!  It must have been a dozen or more different occasions.  And then the ending lines of the Novel read: “He is dancing, dancing.  He says he will never die.”[2]  Goodness.  There is so much more to this, but for brevity’s sake, this harangue must end.

[1] Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West, (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 54
[2] Ibid., 335.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brief Response to Marx

              At first glance and upon suspicion, Marx’s “On the Jewish Question” seems like a typical 19th century science-justified Darwinistic racism, codified, justified, and celebrated.  But it isn’t that!  On closer observation, we can see that Marx isn’t just criticizing “the Jew,” but is also highlighting the fundamental problems of a Christian-based society.  And he is somewhat criticizing Christians, as well.  If my history serves, I believe that Marx was not particularly fond of either.
                Both Christianity and Judaism stand in the way of the Universal truth, and the universal happiness.  This because they are something other than the full state and society, both are something other.   As he says, “It is the question of the relation of religion to the state, of the contradiction between religious constraint and political emancipation.”[1]  All religion contradicts itself.  “How is religious opposition made impossible?  By abolishing religion.”[2]  All religion stands in the way of political emancipation – only by abolishing religion in total can anyone be truly emancipated.  Otherwise, they can only be emancipated in their own spheres, the otherness of Judaism or Christianity. [3]
                To what extent was Marx able to conceive of a world free from religion?  Here it seems like he had strong beliefs, but reality and history certainly points to it being a dream.  At every point in history, there is a certain mythology or religion that follows every state, especially the great ones.  Perhaps he should have considered the relationship of the religious mind to the state, and the possible symbiosis, as did Plato with his Philosopher Kings.  I am not well read in Marx, but I do not recall a proof where the he showed how religion detracts from humanity’s well being.

[1] Marx, Karl.  On the Jewish Question. From the 1844 version, edited 2009. (accessed on October 9, 2014).
[2] Ibid
[3] Ibid

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Kyd v. Seneca

This was the first time for me reading The Spanish Tragedy. I guess I’ve been spoiled with Shakespeare, because I was having trouble enjoying the spectacle of this play. It didn’t touch me at an emotional level at all, save for perhaps the immediate aftermath of Horatio’s murder. Remembering the essay of Eliot read previously, I can recall where Eliot mentioned the influence of the Italians, being “Bloodthirsty in the extreme” (that was his actual verbiage). And it was very influential on early Renaissance English Drama. No doubt this is the case here. The Murder happened early, and then needed to be quickly equated, and finally ended in a finale of stabbings and suicide. This isn’t all that different from Hamlet in scopes of death. However, what I found missing was the anticipation, the weaving of plot, and the building of the characters. Perhaps Kyd was keeping Seneca’s structure too close to heart (though lacking his language), as there was little more development than the first scene where certain people announced the positions and exploits of the others. I barely noticed the relationship of Bellimperia and Horatio. The play went, more or less, straight to the killing. And it didn’t stop.

Whereas Seneca was able to revel in language, and create a powerful scene by means of colorful and powerful description despite that lack of plot, Kyd seemed to be preoccupied with the death. There were too many characters that, despite the length of the play, I couldn’t keep them all straight before they started dying. It seemed like there were Viceroys and Ambassadors everywhere. Whereas Seneca or Aeschylus would have a messenger or herald, Kyd wanted to include several types of characters and tried to develop some kind of unique substance in each of them. It would have been better to have a generic character, such as a herald, do what he needs to do and then exeunt.

Here I sound like a lousy critic. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Kyd didn’t measure up to enjoyment of Seneca, and was perhaps too fond of the Italian bloodthirst.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Something on Seneca

As for myself, I am ashamedly lacking readings of Seneca. I say ashamedly now, for I didn’t know what I was missing. Thyestes had no trouble holding my full attention, and even De Ira had me well grasped. I found it comparable to when I first discovered Milton as a bright-eyed undergrad. (I say “discovered.” Though I was exposed to him in high school, I lacked the patience to appreciate it).

On reflection, I find that I agree with Eliot in that Seneca’s plays make for a poor performance. Rather, they are meant to be recited, or as serves my purposes, read. I found myself looking back and forth to the Latin, occasionally pronouncing the words as I recalled my undergraduate Latin training (which is seriously lacking, being unpracticed for five years). Nonetheless, like Eliot I was stricken by the power of the words, the potency of the sentences, and the brashness of the description. Liberos avidus pater / gaudensque lacerat et suos artus edat. / bene est, abunde est. hic placet poenae modus. There is poetry in these words which the translation brings through, and so I admire both sides of our book.

That I believe is the true strength of Seneca and the reason for his influence. I found myself nodding again with Eliot, in that Seneca didn’t seem to have much concern with introductions, character subtleties, gathering suspense, or other “machinations of the stage” (to borrow from Eliot). Rather, it was the power of the words, the boldness of the description, and the power of the action that makes Thyestes stick in one’s mind. There is little foreshadowing, and little doubt of the play’s conclusion, but it nonetheless presents itself as a spectacle. Aequalis astris gradior et cunctos super / altum superbo vertice attingens pollum. / nunc decora regni teneo, nunc solim patris. Delightful.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Response to the Downgrading of Literature

[My] assertion [is] that there is no Rennaissance for the modern reader. There is instead a curriculum, a forced burden, from which a few students might find a few things that they like. Students, save for a few, walk away from this cuirriculum with spite and a vow never to return.

I once heard the Renaissance defined as a love of the Classical World. There was a time when the educated would look back at the great thinkers (Aristotle) and Poets (Homer) with admiration and a desire to emulate. Today there seems to be no looking back (ie, Renaissance). Instead there is a looking forward, mainly to audience appeal and profits. Literature is deemed to suffer because of that. The place of Industry and Capitalism seems to be the best place to blame, if blame is the objective. A commoditization? Industrialization? An assembly line, for books? At least in part, and perhaps in totality. Let us push further into this historical tangent: The scientific revolution propounded new methods of thought which made the previously mysitcal place of art and literature quantifiable. We can look at Psychology as the more obvious example, but Historicism and Formalism are active as well. Art was to be classified, not worshipped.

From Lukacs The Theory of the Novel

"Truly a folly to the Greeks! Kant’s starry firmament now shines only in the dark night of pure cognition, it no longer lights any solitary wanderer’s path (for to be a man in the new world is to be solitary). And the inner light affords evidence of security, or its illusion, only to the wanderer’s next step. No light radiates any longer from within into the world of events, into its vast complexity to which the soul is a stranger. And who can tell whether the fitness of the action to the essential nature of the subject — the only guide that still remains — really touches upon the essence, when the subject his become a an object unto itself; when his innermost and most particular essential nature appears to him only as a never-ceasing demand written upon the imaginary sky of that which ‘should be'; when this innermost nature must emerge from an unfathomable chasm which lies within the subject himself, when only what comes up from the furthermost depths is his essential nature, and no one can ever sound or even glimpse the bottom of those depths? Art, the visionary reality of the world made to our measure, has thus become independent: it is no longer a copy, for all the models have gone; it is a created totality, for the natural unity of the metaphysical spheres has been destroyed forever."

What are we getting at? This commoditization is realized by the modern audience as born consumers, and as such, the modern audience places literature on the same plain as cell phones and shampoo. Like those commodities, they pick the book they like best, for whatever reason (advertising, social pressure, personal relatability, etc). Thus the reader is defined.

For a writer in a saturated market (the saturation is debatable, but that argument is for another day), he/she has to cut through the great noise with the most obvious emotional appeals onto a very narrow audience, in order to make sales. Thus the writer is defined. The economic needs and desires of the struggling author lead to a soppy, cliched product for the reader.

Commoditization and a lack of Renaissance compound into eachother until the thought of Literature as Art is a matter only for lifelong academics sitting in their offices. Though I add this is not unique to this span of history (for instance, the late 1800s in America). It seems to take a historical event (World War I) to smack western literature out of its funk, and back into producing art that is historically significant. I would like to respond to more of your post, especially the bit about an English education (which I largeley agree with), but the rambling needs to stop.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Something on the Meaning of Literature

Presented with the question, "What is the meaning of Literature?"

Such a broad question deserves a broad response. I take by the framing of the question and responses that we are proposing "meaning" as the objective purpose, and not the subjective "meaning" of personal relations. For fun, let us take a soft Marxist point of view. So I half-heartedly assert: Literature is in part an attempt to rectify language into an imitation of nature (where painting or sculture actually imitated nature). Though after the Industrial Revolution and subsequent onset of nationalism, all literature is destined to become a mode of propoganda.

Therefore, the meaning (as objective purpose) can be said to be twofold:

1. an imitation of nature (beauty)
2. propoganda (politics)

I might go so far as to assert the primary and perhaps defining dialectic of literature is in these factors. The Imitation of nature (beauty) is the demeanor of the work, i.e., the outward appearance and means of appeal to the reader. But the nature of the work is, in one way or another, propoganda; it either promotes the status-quo (decadence, bourgeois) or calls for change (revolution).

See: Kant; Walter Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno, et al.

In addition, we must be careful to not confuse the meaning of "writing" with the meaning of "literature."

Excerpts from The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Regarding the Discussion on Professions

All higher education seems to encounter the same problem in different ways, that the degree is not itself a preparation for the profession. Medical students have a residency which gives them a pre-defined way to turn their medical knowledge gleaned from years of medical school into practical experience. In that they have a luxury (though any current resident would beg to differ with their 80+ hour work weeks). Other professions have no built-in way of turning academic education into everyday practicality. Frankly, I don't see how they could without some kind of unprecedented employment/training pipeline, a la residency.

That does not nullify the purpose of formal education. There instead needs to be a social correction on college and beyond, noting first of all that a degree does not guarantee gainful employment. It is up to the student to recognize the need for practical experience (internships, part-time jobs), connections within their industry, referrals, etc. These requirements are perhaps more important than the academic substance of the education, depending on the field of study. The need to "juggle" is omnipresent in the business world, and should be in the schools that seek to educate future professionals.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Longinus, a Respite

Though not without consideration in the annals of the Humanities graduate student (I’m sure), Longinus goes often overlooks among the great Greek and Roman philosophers and orators. The shadow of Aristotle is long and broad, broader still with Plato beside him. This may be due to a lack of works, the survivor being On The Sublime. Or it may be due to a lack of reflection on the work. I suspect the latter. Unfortunately, this article is not the place to delve into a detailed historical speculation.

Yet, it is noteworthy to consider the historical ambiguity surrounding the author of On the Sublime. Spurning any definitive claim to his own work, the author has enchanted the words with a kind of mysiticism. The image brought into one’s mind is that of a learned roman nobleman, perhaps adorned with olive branches, representing the ideal of ancient scholastic idealism.

Whatever the case may be, it is no doubt a shame that there is not more credit given to the person collectively known as Longinus. Regarding the tone and ideas of the text itself, there is a certain idealism that shines through. Aristotle remains popular perhaps due to his more scientific approach, which is certainly held in favor in the mechanical science-driven modern world.

Indeed, the past century has seen the discrediting of literary idealism in all its forms, moving towards a certain definition of realism. Has realism become the new “Sublime?” But this is getting too large an undertaking to continue . Suffice it to say that the author Longinus deserves a second look in light of the many developments in literary theory in the past century.

On the Sublime

"It is proper to observe that in human life nothing is truly great which is despised by all elevated minds. For example, no man of sense can regard wealth, honour, glory, and power, or any of those things which are surrounded by a great external parade of pomp and circumstance, as the highest blessings, seeing that merely to despise such things is a blessing of no common order: certainly those who possess them are admired much less than those who, having the opportunity to acquire them, through greatness of soul neglect it." (section VII)