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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Fop's Poetics

Theodor Adornno famously wrote that writing poetry would not be possible after Auschwitz.  As it was, poetry was more necessary in a world of constant genocide.  But this begs the question.  What function did poetry have before it gained a new function as witness? In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance there are several references to the narrator’s, Miles Coverdale’s, use for poetry.  There is even a moment where another character, Hollingsworth, questions Coverdale’s motives.  He asks Coverdale what he cares about during a period of hardship, “what more do you want of it? It has given you a theme for poetry. Let that content you” (Hawthorne 131).  It is clear that the criticism of Coverdale is that he does not really care what happens so long as it gives him inspiration and fodder for poetry.  One does not need care for the muse, one only need use and abuse the muse.  

This is furthered evidenced by the fact that Coverdale cannot write poetry during a time when he is actually doing something physically productive and necessary to sustain life such as farming (Hawthorne 66).  Coverdale even acknowledges his own uselessness and insignificance at the beginning of the novel, “I am only a poet, and, so the critics tell me, no great affair at that” (Hawthorne 7)! Coverdale doubts his own worth.  This leads me to ask the question: what is his poetry worth if it is just like him as a person? It does nothing.  

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What it Means to be a Cannibal

What does it mean to be a cannibal?  The O.E.D. define the term "cannibal" as "a person who eats the flesh of other human beings."  Note that the definition here does not include organs, blood, tissue, bone, cartilage, bodily fluids, or anything else I might have missed.  The first definition of "flesh" in the O.E.D. notes, "the soft substance in the body consisting of muscle tissue and fat," whereas the fourth sense of the term "(the flesh)" is defined as "the physicality of the human body as contrasted with the mind or the soul."  The latter allows for flesh to be generally taken as the corporeal and physical parts of a human being rather than the existential or metaphysical parts.  This would mean that everything, not just the meat and skin of a human, is flesh. Yet, it is not the primary definition of the term as skin, muscle tissue, and fat is.

Perhaps it is important to acknowledge the distinction made here so as to disallow for the ingestion of one's one phlegm or the bodily fluids of one's self or others as cannibalism.  If the definition included every part and fluid of a being then children who pick their nose and eat the contents discovered within may technically be labeled cannibals since they are consuming a part of the human body.  I take the definition to this extreme to show that defining cannibalism is not as straightforward as one might assume without further contemplation and inquiry.  Another example might be the question of drinking human blood.  Is that vampirism and not cannibalism because it's blood? Blood is a part of the body; without blood circulating through flesh (muscle, tissue, fat), flesh would wither and die.  If you cut your finger and suck up the blood in order to prevent it from dripping on your fancy new shirt is that cannibalism? Vampirism? Both?

Let's move on to flesh now.  Eating another human being's flesh is cannibalism.  Biting your nails or engaging in the rather gross practice of picking your scabs or dry skin and ingesting it is not.  Why? Because it is your own body.  According to the above definitions one can costume one's own body and not be a cannibal.

Okay. So I think despite all these exceptions I bring up it is fair to say that eating the flesh of another human being is definitely cannibalism.  But what about consuming another person's thoughts, their personae, emotions? How about eating somebody's soul?  Is that cannibalism? Stay tuned. I hope to figure this out through both research and poetry. Yay!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Authorial Intent or the Lack Thereof

Oftentimes when reading a canonical or classic work of literature I find myself bombarded with footnotes and editorial commentaries.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not a proponent of New Criticism; I do think that context and the biography of the author are really important things to consider while reading a text.  However, I do not like it when theorists, critics, academics, and editors make assumptions about authorial intent and shove words down an author's mouth.  Not only do I not like it, I feel that these kinds of over-confident, even hubristic, academic abuses are harmful to the reader's perception of a text.

For example, in Edgar Allan Poe's The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the book's editors Frederick S. Frank and Diane Long Hoevler insist that because Poe uses other foreign words and instances of wordplay that every instance of a created word must have some sort of meaning as derived from a foreign language.  This meaning is also meant to carry significance to the interpretation of a text and speak of authorial intent.  These academics never acknowledge that perhaps since there is no clear root or basis for a fabricated word that maybe, just maybe, the author made it up.  Maybe it sounded good to him or her, maybe he made the word up as a child--who knows? I'd rather not know than pretend to know by forcing my interpretation upon reader's and claiming it to be the author's intent while knowing well that they could not possibly know the intent of the author without confirming it with him or her.

This is seen in Poe's novel where the editors note at the first mention of the made-up native word, "Tekeli-li" (Poe 223).  The editors explain that different critics have tried (often in vain) to uncover Poe's reasoning for and a possible root for the word.  This single footnote takes up approximately 1/3 of the page.  The editors finish the note by saying citing a critic that noted the word may just have been used for "its exotic sound quality or as ersatz Polynesian" (223).

It is clear from this that critics, academics, and editors have been trying to decode authorial intent and have come up with nothing. Sometimes it may just be that the author did not intend for something to have a rich history, complex origin, or significant meaning; sometimes a word is just from the author's imagination.  This frustrates academics; they cannot accept this fact because they are compelled to find an exact explanation for everything.  Who can know what the author meant if anything at all? So, who cares? It is not that big of a deal and certainly not something that merits a large footnote consisting of conjecture and bloviation.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Universal Education: A Utopic Venture

In her feminist-utopian novel, Mizora, Mary E. B. Bradley Lane makes the claim that universal education is the key to creating a more iddlic society.  She mentions this in the beginning, middle, and at the very end of Mizora. The penultimate paragraph is as follows, "The future of the world, if it be grand and noble, will be the result of UNIVERSAL EDUCATION, FREE AS THE GOD-GIVEN WATER WE DRINK" (Lane 147).  If you educate people you raise people up.  Lane argues that the future of the world depends on education.

Earlier in the book she states that education is what will destroy any structure of caste or socio-economic class (67).  I would like to argue that this might not be true.  Humankind is far too prone to competition as it has a compulsory need for hierarchy.  Create a society that is egalitarian, but aparatchiks will still weasel their way out and up.

Hypothetically, let's say that everyone is educated and we have no need for manual workers because that kind of work has been completely mechanized.  A hierarchy will still exist because even among all the different types of "brain" work, as Lane calls it, there is a hierarchy of values.  One might make a ranked list: 1. Doctors 2. Professors 3. Lawyers 4. Engineers, etc.  But then again, aren't professors more important than doctors for doctors would not be able to practice without the higher education granted them by professors? On the other hand, professors would not be able to educate future doctors if their health was not maintained by doctors? What is more important? The chicken or the egg?

One might argue that all of these are equally as important, but yet hierarchical values in a world in which everyone is educated would still be highly subjective.  These "brain" workers would have an inherit bias informing the importance and status of a certain field, likely their own.

Universal education would engender a new hierarchy: one in which the educated formed ranks and rule over the less educated or the equally educated in fields of lesser societal value.

Ask yourself if you know a doctoral or master's degree student that holds a great deal of reverence for an undergraduate student.  

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Regrettable Past, Guilty Future

In her Utopian work of fiction, "Three Hundred Years Hence," Mary Griffith presents readers with a future version of the United States depicted as a dream by the protagonist, Edgar Hastings.  While discovering the new world Hastings presents many questions pertaining to the status quo and technology of his day.  Most of his answers are provided by a historical ledger called the "Recorder of Self-Inflicted Miseries."

On page 47 of the text the "Recorder's" purpose is explained to Hastings, "But I have a file of the Recorder of Self-inflicted Miseries, and you will see the regular gradation from the barbarisms of your day to the unenlightened times it has been permitted you to see" (Griffith 47).

What I am interested in exploring here is the ledger's title. It is a recorder. It records history. The process of recording something, such as an audio file, means that facts, histories, and quotations would be written verbatim--no editorializing, no paraphrasing, just cold, hard information exactly as it was presented originally.

The next portion of the journal's title is even more interesting.  The document means to record "miseries."  This would suggest that there would be no happy news in this record, just all the bad things that occurred throughout history.  Okay, so far we have an exact record of all the bad shit in the world.

What really changes the intent and the purpose of the "Recorder" is the fact that the "Miseries" it records are "Self-Inflicted."  Meaning, humanity has no one to blame for the bad shit that happened but themselves.  It does not seek to blame nature, fortune, or happenstance: it blames humanity.  Humanity, why are you hitting yourself? Why are you hitting yourself? Why did you hit yourself? Why did you inflict "barbarism" upon yourself? You did. Really, you did.  We have it here: all the miseries as they happened, verbatim.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


In Adam Seaborn's Symzonia there is a mention of the "fatal sin of cupidity, which drove our first parents out of Paradise is almost wholly unknown to the pure and uncontaminated Internals."

This statement is a comparison of two utopias: Paradise (The Garden of Eden) and the native inhabitants of the island Symzonia.

I want to unpack this sentence for the sake of discourse.  The sentence is seemingly straightforward on the surface level but it hides its true meaning.

Cupidity, defined by the O.E.D., is "greed for money or possessions."  While greed or avarice is one of the 7 Deadly Sins, I wouldn't argue that it is the sin responsible for the fall of man.  The fall of man described in the Bible occurs due to Adam and Eve disobeying God's command to avoid the Tree of Knowledge and its fruit.  You could call it greed to eat the fruit, but I would call it curiosity or at worst, a hubristic longing for knowledge.

The sin, however, did not result in immediate death, but one could argue that it introduced mortality to humanity as a result of man's expulsion from immortal paradise.

The language gets trickier following this part.  "is almost wholly unknown."  Once again, we are dealing with knowledge both as knowledge of sin and as sin.  The word "wholly" signifies that the sin of cupidity is not known at all.  The natives apparently have absolutely no knowledge of cupidity, and yet, the author proceeds "wholly" with "almost." Almost means not entirely, not wholly.  There is a paradox how can something be wholly unknown and almost unknown at the same time? This exception suggests that the natives of Symzonia DO know the sin of cupidity, even if only a little bit.

My suspicions are confirmed by the last part of the initial quotation in which the author uses two different words with identical meaning: "pure" and "uncontaminated." The redundancy of this assertion suggests doubt of the notion that the natives are indeed wholly pure, but perhaps just almost pure.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Defining an American

It may be more difficult to define what or who an American is, what he or she represents, and create a paradigmatic figure out of a "typical" or representative American now more than ever before. One might say that attempting to define an American is an impossible task (even if accomplished to some incomplete degree) that would be limiting and narrowing in a manner that disenfranchises that majority of Americans.  The short answer, is that a representative American is many different types of people.  This symbolic American would have many facets including, but not limited to different: religions, cultures, languages, education levels, and economic statuses.  These are just a few of the major distinctions that humans make to differentiate themselves from others.  Creating this "us and them" sort of model may only be helpful to an individual seeking to firmly establish his or her identity, but labels leave little room for exceptions.  Given the endless combinations that the diversity of the United States can lead to, it is pointless to define an American. Certainly there may be similarities that most Americans share, but there are always exceptions.  The only absolute is that there are no absolutes.  Americans are many different shades of gray (much more than fifty) rather than black or white.

I bring up the question of this impossible definition because I want to address a revolutionary war era letter written by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur.  In his Letter III from Letters from an American Farmer. Crevecoeur asserts that there is one type of American that has emerged so far from the newly minted republic- an agrarian.  While he does acknowledge that different ethnicities composed American society by noting that Americans are a "mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen," the author still insists that Americans are all of similar ilk.  

I understand where Crevecoeur is coming from in his letter and I can definitely understand his bias. The language of farming even comes through in his metaphors and verbs when he is not talking about farming specifically. However, I must contend with Crevecouer's assertion that Americans should be farmers and argue that this is not really how American society was back then, but merely what he envisioned for America. There is little room for economic diversity in this version of his America and American.  One might call it a utopia, I would not.