Monday, October 3, 2011

Morrisson has MORE to say?!?!?

In my haste today I omitted two inter-textual connections that are worth noting in the context of my reading of the Mytilenean debate. First, on the question of societal trust as a foundation for compassion, I wonder whether this gives us insight into the dynamic that develops in the Book of Job. Fearing that they might be subject to Job's fate and no longer trusting in the security afforded by their presumed virtue, perhaps Job's friends are driven to an emotional place from which compassion for Job becomes impossible. We might search the text for signs that the three friends fear for themselves and have no room left for a compassionate consideration of Job's plight.

Secondly, a comment Professor Meyer made prior to lecture reminded me of something I had been thinking of during the lectures she shared with Professor Maya on The Eumenides. In this play the notion of a deliberated jury trial seems to be central to the very idea of the city - it marks a kind of differentiation of the city's code from the earth's (Furies') code. Thucydides' interrogation of speech/deliberation as the basis for action (both just and expedient) might provide a useful tool for our understanding of why it is so important for Athena to insist on a trial in this post-Persian-War Athenian tragedy. Is Aeschylus insisting on the importance of democratic institutions even though their cost (to the Earth) may initially appear to be very high? We might get a little more on this in The Frogs.
—Iain Morrisson

Monday, April 4, 2011

Plum Painting

by RCremins

Remarks by Profs Estess and Maya today in lecture reminded me of a painting I saw this weekend at the wonderful Impressionist exhibition at the MFAH. We heard about Whitman's "exuberant urbanism" and Baudelaire's observation of "the lonely crowd" (with Dr. Estess reminding us that Whitman too has his dark side).

The young woman in Manet's Plum Brandy is surely part of that lonely urban army. She is too plainly dressed to be the "woman passed" in the Baudelaire poem Dr. Maya talked about, but she could be the woman from the "populous city" that Whitman left behind...

There she is with her cigarette and her aperitif (two of the "discreet pleasures," to quote Dr. Morrisson, that the "present age" spends so much time consuming), but it looks as if neither of them are giving her much satisfaction, or will give her much satisfaction. Is the drink even touched? Is the cigarette even lit?

And what about the blank expression of her face? Is this one of Kierkegaard's drained selves? Is this the face of the leveling process? Is she tired of "flirtation," tired of "talkativeness"?

Please note, students, that there is a price reduction for this special exhibition if you have valid student ID, and a further reduction on Thursdays (exhibition ends May 23):

Admission A timed-entry ticket, which includes general museum admission, is required. MFAH Members receive complimentary admissions based on their level of membership. For the general public, admission is $20 (adults) and $15 (children, students, senior adults). Admission is free for children 5 and under, but they do need a ticket to enter the exhibition. On Thursday, tickets are available at a lower price ($15 adults; $10 children, students, senior adults) because general admission is free on Thursday, courtesy of the Shell Oil Company Foundation. In addition to their complimentary admissions, MFAH Members may buy additional tickets for $10. These reduced-rate tickets may be purchased only by MFAH Members. All visitors may purchase a premium untimed ticket that allows one admission to the exhibition at the time/day of their choice during museum hours throughout the run of the show. Premium tickets are $12.50 (MFAH Members) and $25 (general public) and are not eligible for child/student/senior discounts.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Brilliant Mistake

by RCremins

Let's take a second look at that Keats poem in the packet: "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer." Did you spot the mistake? The Conquistador who first "star'd at the Pacific" was Balboa, not Cortez. When he drafted the poem in 1816, Keats had just read a book on the Conquistadors, and blended together in his imagination two separate but related events: Cortez's "discovery" of the Valley of Mexico and Balboa's sighting of the Pacific from "a peak in Darien" (modern-day Panama). In fact, a friend of Keats immediately spotted the mistake when he saw the poem in manuscript; interestingly, Keats decided to leave the line as it was. For one thing, "Balboa" would have disrupted the sonnet's iambic pentameter beat by adding an extra syllable. Perhaps Keats really like the phrase "stout Cortez" (so much better than, say, "rocky Balboa"). What matters here is that poetic truth trumped historical truth--a deeply Romantic gesture: the triumph, you could say, of the imagination over the "mind-forg'd manacles" (Blake) of the merely factual.

It's appropriate then that this creative "mistake" occurs in the midst of a brilliant comparison (what literary critics would call a conceit) that "illumine[s]" (Shelley) in our minds this moment of discovery through the efforts of an artist (in this case, Chapman the translator) of a new world, the world of Homer. It's a world of the imagination (Homer's), for the imagination (Keats the reader), and--communicated--by the imagination (Chapman). In other words, imagination is sovereign. Indeed, the imaginative intelligence is the sovereign ("That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne").

Now, I don't think that the Romantics believed that a poet should rule over a literal kingdom. They were children of the Enlightenment (though some members of that first generation I mentioned outlived the fiery second generation and become rather reactionary old men). They would have applauded Madison assertion in Federalist # 49 that "the people are the only legitimate fountain of power" (Kammen 198). But the Romantics believed they had a mission to help get the people, in whom sovereignty resides, to a better place, a better world. That task, for them, was part of the vocation of being a poet. As Shelley say in The Defence of Poetry: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world." They are part politician, part priest. Their job is, oracle-like, to "apprehend" new oceans of possibility, a "new planet" (Keats) fit for human living, a New Jerusalem, in which "midnight streets" (Blake), "muddy spring[s]," (Shelley), and "dark Satanic Mills" (Blake) will be seen no more.

Where, you might ask, does this audacious plan, in the preface to Milton, come from, this extraordinary ambition to not just improve society and liberate those "charter'd street[s] and hemmed-in river, but also to "build Jerusalem, / In Englands green & pleasant land"? Well, keen students of last semester's reading will pick up on the imagery and the energy of the Book of Revelation. But Blake was also inspired by a non-Scriptual source. There is a story, long cherished in England, that in the missing years of Christ (between twelve and about twenty-eight, of which the Gospels say nothing--what Dr. Estess would call a notable "narrative silence"), the boy Jesus was brought to England by Joseph of Arimathea, a merchant who went to Cornwall to buy tin, as the Phoenicians did. Hence the prospect, in Blake's poem, of "the Countenance Divine, / Shin[ing] forth upon [England's] clouded hills" long, long before the Industrial Revolution had blighted the landscape. A far-fetched notion, you might say, mere wishful thinking. But also, perhaps, another brilliant mistake.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Image of the Island

In Act I, Scene ii of The Tempest, there's a speech by Miranda, which, as a footnote on page 20 of our edition tells us, "early editors often gave ... to Prospero." I agree with Dr. Maya that it makes more sense dramatically that those lines are indeed spoken by him. Hence we have the deposed Duke of Milan claiming that he "[t]ook pains to make [Caliban] speak" (I. ii. 354), replacing his "gabble" with proper "words." Caliban agrees with him--with a twist: "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse" (363-64).

However, does that necessarily mean that Caliban did not have a language before Prospero arrived? Has he perhaps internalized Prospero's (implicit) opinion that such "gabble" is not worthy of the name language? If--and I must thank Prof. Little from Team Omega for this example--he had no "words," then how does he know the name of Setebos, his "dam's god" (374)?

For me, this connects with Montaigne's thinking on barbarism: "every man calls barbarous anything he is not accustomed to" (Essays 82). One explanation I have heard of the etymology of the word "barbarous" is that the Greeks heard foreign languages as mere "bar-bar-bar"--gabble, in other words. One man's eloquence can be another man's nonsense. One people's poetry can be another people's gibberish. In Ireland I have heard--now, these are not typical opinions, mind--English denigrated as "trash" and Irish (Gaelic) dismissed as a "bog language." In his memoir of the Irish War of Independence, On Another Man's Wound, Ernie O' Malley recalls that in the small country town he was born in at the turn of the 20th century, "use of Irish [was] fit only for the uneducated." Let's be clear about that: this was Irish people who had that attitude towards their own ancient language. Such people, who repudiated their native culture and embraced (with perhaps some cursing) the culture of England, the colonizing culture, were known as Shoneens, or "Little Johns." (Having gone to Trinity College, Dublin, founded by Queen Elizabeth I, I'm a bit of a Shoneen myself.)

So, one the one side, we have the native who takes up, with a considerable degree of ambivalence, the language of the newcomer (can we call Prospero a colonizer?), and on the other side, the newcomer who does not recognize or acknowledge the culture, the human artifice, of what's there already (remember, that the "[s]cene" of the play is described--see page 2--as "[a]n uninhabited island"). This brings to mind a well-known and thought-provoking essay by Chinua Achebe about another significant "colonial" text: "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad'sHeart of Darkness." I don't entirely agree with Achebe's argument, but I think it's an important piece of criticism:

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two French Skeptics

I hope you all caught that interesting paradox towards the end of Dr. Ferguson's lecture yesterday on Montaigne and the experience essay: that Montaigne, champion of the particular, the personal, the experimental (writing essays being a form of testing) was also a faithful Catholic; that he remained a member of the Church he was born and baptized into--precisely because it was customary. Look at what he says about Luther on p. 370: that "he left behind in Germany as many--indeed more--discords and disagreements because of doubts about his opinions that he himself ever raised about Holy Scripture." Is it a case of "better the system you know" than a new-fangled imposition?

What Dr. Ferguson said reminded me of what our Honors College colleague Dr. David Mikics said, in an interview I'd read just a few days before, about another significant (but much more recent) French skeptic: Jaques Derrida, the godfather of deconstructionism. I was fascinated by this (italics are mine):

Derrida once said that nothing meant more to him than being a Jew—although, he added, being a Jew meant so little to him. The ambivalence is telling. Derrida had a fraught relation to religious ritual (he remembered with disgust that, in the Algeria of his youth, members of the synagogue would pay for the privilege of carrying the Torah). Like Freud, he refused to have his sons circumcised. Yet he wrote obsessively about Jewish topics, and his strongest intellectual influence in his later work was the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas embodied ethics and responsibility, the demand to be one’s brother’s keeper and to love one’s neighbor. These were crucial values for Derrida, and they consorted strangely with his aggressive skepticism about knowledge and truth. I think that, in the end, Derrida believed with Lévinas that ethics, the command to care for our fellow human being, is simply revelation; it cannot be philosophically demonstrated, and so it is immune to skepticism. This idea is profoundly Jewish. Derrida may not have trusted in the covenant—I can’t tell whether he did or not—but he was a Jew who saw the primal fact of ethics disclosed in the Torah and the prophets, rather than in Plato or Heidegger.

So here we have two French thinkers, four centuries apart (Montaigne was born in 1533, Derrida in 1930), both reaching the limits of skepticism and communing with ("embracing" seems too strong a verb) their religious heritage.

Or does skepticism have limits?

Here's the link to the full interview with Dr. Mikics. [RCremins]

Monday, January 31, 2011

Utopia and the Cuckoo Clock

Of the four questions Dr. Morrisson posed in Thursday's lecture on Utopia, the one that I found the most intriguing was the second: Does Utopia ensure peace by gently closing off dissent and discourse? In my discussion sections, this led to a debate about whether the price paid for peace and well-being in such a conformist society, where "[e]veryone has his eye on you" (65), would also include creativity.

According to Raphael's account, the answer is no: "By applying their trained intelligence to scientific research, [the Utopians have] become amazingly good at inventing things that are useful in everyday life" (81). In other words, in this society where reason is king and rebellion a fool, innovation is welcomed with open arms. My students were skeptical about whether, in the real world, brilliance would have enough breathing space in such a regimented, blandly equalitarian society. This inspired me to play them Orson Welles wonderful riff on Italy and Switzerland from the movie The Third Man:
What do you think? Do real-world approximations of Utopia produce no more than cuckoo clocks? Is a little chaos necessary to produce creative individuals?

Or would you reformulate these questions? [RCremins]

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