Simone De Beauvoir: The Author of “The Second Sex”

Spurred on by my interest in Mary Wollstonecraft, I felt it would be prudent to look into Simone De Beauvoir; not only was she a prominent feminist writer, but also an influential critic of her period. The introduction to The Second Sex was especially enlightening, and I particularly enjoyed the piece, particularly when it is compared alongside Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Again, I used the Radio Four resource to take some extra notes and hear real experts on the subject speaking, and below are my notes on the program.

With thanks to

Simone De Beauvoir (1)

Simone De Beauvoir became a poster girl for feminism, and was a strong disciple and lover of Jean Paul Sartre. The two had a very close academic relationship and within their intellectual conversation, there was a coupling which was very important to her. She strongly believed that he was the greatest philosopher of the age. Their relationship was very transparent and sometimes loyalties crossed over, and threatened to rock the boat; their emotional affairs however sometimes left gaps in the relationships and led to illness.

The two however were very much celebrities, and were part of existential philosophy, and what can be made now and of the future. They were the spokespeople of the young, and the next generation backs. Simone’s life however was very special; her parents were alarmed by her high intellectualism. Simone realised around the age of thirteen that God did not exist; she was dutiful of course, however when she became a student, departed and moved on. She was a very passionate woman; the loss of God to her and the admiration of her father was very important, and she felt things very deeply. She attempted to provide her relationship with Sartre with reason; this attempt on rationality is extremely difficult, but in a strange way becomes more emotional, and forms more rage; it replicates what went on in her childhood (her father was also a philanderer). The transparency made their relationship both weaker and stronger and formed the part of an experimental love, in the same way as she formed experimental ideas.

Women in particular have always been extremely susceptible to men of intellect and theory; De Beauvoir was no exception. She was an intellectual woman and therefore fell in love with Sartre’s mind. She however had a huge impact on Sartre and often edited, and contributed, to his writing. She stated that the success of her life had been her relationship with Sartre.

There had been very little examination of femininity and what it really meant to be a woman previously; The Second Sex was an often overlooked text of the Feminist movement and is often perceived by some academics as being old-fashioned and based on patriarchy; this is however what she knew. The text was however (later) revelatory in feminist ideology.

De Beauvoir’s life often seems to be lacking in ‘fun’. She seems to have an academic life, however a lack of social prominence, but had a tremendous capacity for fun, sitting in society and the exchange on information. She was patient throughout her life. She used her experiences to influence her writings throughout her life; she was published relatively late however she had many writings based around her earlier life. She was often found to engage in a threesome, (consider Olga). She also felt that sexual exploration was a fundamental part of growing up; the exploration of life forms. She also enjoyed the student-teacher relationship.

When Sartre returned from military service he began taking more drugs and began to hallucinate about crustaceans. When Beauvoir was moving towards wooing Olga, the crustaceans began to disappear; despite this apparently positive effect, it is possible however to consider that she never actually wanted a ménage a trois with Sartre, and that it came at great emotional cost to her. She felt destroyed by Sartre; lonely and worried at being abandoned and having failed in relationships, and being scared of death. Simone De Beauvoir’s humour was extremely dry, however her life was probably full of fun and happiness.

When she arrived in Canada in the 1950’s, the Catholic church had censored much of what she said, because of the sheer force of its impact. Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had an extremely passionate love affair, and even referred to each other as little husband, and little wife.  She wore his rings, up until her death. They had a very on and off again affair. Sartre was demanding, and due to this, Nelson Algren and Beauvoir had a gargantuan row, ending their affair temporarily. However they tried to be friends and Algren tried to understand the menage a trois. This was an experiment in how to have an open relationship more honestly.

Beauvoir was always anti establishment; she argued that the church and society were against women, and that men wanted to feel superior to these people. It is a hatred for women. This apparently was not found in Anglo-Saxon cultures. She felt however that the title “feminism” was a reductive title and would have defined her in relation to a man; she wanted to be defined as a human and as a humanist, as opposed to simply the opposite of man. Existentialism however was very much a theory of its time, and is less applicable to the modern age. The exploration of gender issues has moved on however Simone De Beauvoir is still very much the bedrock of gender and feminist studies.

“Women still form a repressed group, and have very little advantage compared to those in capitalism.”

This particular discussion was not only enlightening about her work, but also about her life. I will certainly be pursuing the career of De Beauvoir much further, especially considering her work in relation to her relationships.


With thanks to Radio Four for the content of these notes.



Mary Wollstonecraft: The First Feminist Writer

This week, I began studying feminism as part of my course at university. Therefore I decided that some research into feminist writers would be a good place to start, and because of my recent love affair with In Our Time, decided that these programs would be particularly useful. Therefore I treated them as lectures, taking notes as I listened. It was thoroughly enjoyable experience!

Courtesy of

By the time of writing, the Vindication of the Rights of Woman represents a very sophisticated level of her abilities. It is not however a straightforward proposal for women’s rights, especially in terms of property and politics, however they are implicit in that if women were re-educated and society reshaped, then these rights would become a part of the ‘new woman’. She writes primarily about middle class women. Women tended to accept the ascribed social position; Wollstonecraft tries to think her way out of this, to find a way that a woman can perform a civic role in society and be more educated.

As the political climate changed, the book’s understanding changed. Much of the book however was not ‘anti-man’. Women are actually attacked; they are put in gilded cages, and value beauty over intellectualism, and Wollstonecraft believes that these women should refrain from modelling their aspirations on flimsy novels and instead, embrace their minds.

Wollstonecraft often struggled with her own sexuality and sensuality. She believed that there was a right and wrong kind of femininity; women should be human first, and feminine afterwards. The power that comes from beauty is a false kind of power and should only really be used within the context of a relationship; not within the public arena. She perceived love as an obstacle for rational thinking. Wollstonecraft was probably a virgin at the time of writing of the vindication.

There is however a very powerful theme of love in the book; the love of God. Sexual passion in any relationship should not last long; friendship is the basis of a long-term and successful relationship. When Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris, the revolution was in full swing, and she places herself in a perilous position by writing an early history of the revolution. The Vindication does not dwell on political rights of women, however Wollstonecraft does attack political rights in her piece on the French revolution, and so she can be viewed as a political activist in a certain sense. Eventually however she became alienated by the ideology of the revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft theorised motherhood as a fundamental element of the role of women. Godwin reveals much about Wollstonecraft after her death, detailing everything from her suicide attempts to her illegitimate child; people were alienated by this revelation. Her unfinished book also was far more radical than her previous works, and alienated her erstwhile followers. She became more important in the post Woolf era, becoming a foundational figure in the underground feminist movement, and was influenced by her husband in terms of his left-wing communist beliefs; this certainly would have broadened her mind politically.

Thank you to Radio Four for the programme and all its associated content.



Professor Nick Groom: Nick Cave and the Murder Ballad Tradition

Today was another of those productive days that was not necessarily productive in relation to my course. However, I did go through my old lecture notes, typed a few out into my laptop, looked at the viability of starting a new university magazine alongside others on my course, and looked at possible gap years in South America and Asia. But, as always, this comparatively menial level of interest was superseded by Prof. Nick Groom’s lecture on the relationship between Nick Cave, and the ancient murder ballad tradition.

Professor Nick Groom (1)

“Death is the end- or is it?”

Essentially then, the murder ballad is obsessed with the physical end of life, and tends to position itself on the brink of the mortal and the immortal and immortal world. The most striking aspect of the murder ballad, at least in my opinion, is it’s obsession with the total, minute description of brutality of murder in the middle ages, detailing public hangings and castration with the enthusiasm of one reviewing a theatre production. The violation of the body is laid out in graphic detail and unravelled in front of the reader. This exposes almost the nature of the innermost self.

Nick Cave’s O’Malley’s Bar is one his most memorable ballads; in this, the killer speaks directly to us and addresses the idea of direct meaning, looking at observational realism and the bestial sounds that are incomparable to human sounds. He gives us protracted dreamlike precision when speak of ordering a drink. The ample detail is common of the ballad tradition; the disembodied protagonist represents self alienation, as well as being physically destroyed. This could be the executioner style discussed. The killer sings; he is composing his ballad in the very instance of murder.  He gives these minute instances in accounts, alongside the minute events of life, such as coughing. This resolves the gap between representation and reality; this identification is perhaps related to catching sight of oneself in a mirror. In the end, the bar is surrounded by the police; his body becomes his own again, and he has an epiphany of realising his own identity. The lyrics of the song have many murder ballad motifs; although ingenious devices of psychological description are implemented when describing himself in relation to the world. He is also engaged in a theological perspective, engaged in freewill thought; the killer’s will seem malleable; he never finishes counting the victims. The law takes over once the ballad finishes; this represents huge progression in the ballad tradition; earlier ballads never involve the legal system.

The crime writing that evolved into being in the 18th and 19th century took on many attributes of the murder ballads, in particular, the disembowelment of the human as a whole. They complete scenes of crimes form a kind of haunted space, similar to that involved in post structuralism, and the concept of the ghosts of meaning. The excessive analysis and description within crime writing created almost the possibility of too much meaning; urban spaces were being analysed and controlled within the crime novel, as opposed to the more natural environments of rural areas which are more affected by weather and agricultural factors. The man-made, artificial nature of the city provides a metaphor for the man-made, artificial nature of the public execution; it is too planned, and too staged for it to be anything other than a tangible kind of toy town.

Physical occupation in the ballads is particularly important in the literary world. Souvenir ballads were sold at public hangings; these were extremely popular. A whole culture was invested in on the ballad tradition; they would describe and make an account of the crimes and confessions of the condemned. The vast majority of killers had simply fallen foul with the bloody code, and only ten percent of hangings were actually those of murderers. The gallows scaffold at Tyburn was like a stage; the condemned dressed up and offered his final thoughts, which were usually transcribed on his final day. In many ways, the condemned were the living epitome of the morality tale. Large crowds tended to drink, sing, and mix with the criminal and prostituted classes. These ‘festivals’ became notorious for pickpocketing. The hangings therefore could be considered a sacrificial ritual; they are therefore a medium of the truth, and the ultimate nature of the courts and justice system.

The courts and administration highlighted the severity of reality. The gallows were a kind of portal; they were on the brink of reality. The expelled fluids of the hanged man were deemed to have magical properties, and mandrake were deemed to grow underneath. In theory then there is no limit and sacrificial logic is never-ending. Reality is here masked by spectacle and representation.

An interesting progression to note is that of the morality of the murder ballad; originally, and in its purest form, there is no morality; it is amoral in the sense that there is rarely any sense of repentance or justice, for example in the tale of O’Malley’s Bar. However Nick Cave moves away from this; his ballads end at the time when the crime is discovered, symbolised by a villager for example finding the bodies, or a police siren sounding in the background. This introduces a previously unexplored element of the murder ballad: justice. This also serves to widen the text to include other elements of social interaction, and so places the ultimate result in the hands of the legal system. In early ballads, especially those depicting Robin Hood, there is no justice and ultimately the perpetrator of such crimes is romanticized and hailed as a hero of folklore; again, consider the progression of the legend of Robin Hood from an evil and murderous killer to the hero that he is hailed as today. The characters of early ballads were allowed to almost run free; pillage, rape and even cannibalism being central themes in the old murder ballad.

Nick Cave also tends to narrow the difference between the protagonist and the speaker, and the first person is often used within the narrative. This creates a haunting effect; the idea of a person describing his or her own death. This also relates to the death story, which was often used alongside the original murder ballads; the death story is often someone describing their own death, or sang about it in the same sense. This essentially creates the effect of being completely disconnected from one’s own body.

The popularity of Nick Cave’s album may have been based around the terrorist culture that existed at the time, for example the Dunblane Primary School, and OJ Simpson’s murder of his wife and her associate. This possibly led to the success of the album, and the revival of a tradition that had been somewhat obscured over recent years.

I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture, especially because Prof. Nick Groom gives a paper in a rather organised and logical fashion; something that appeals rather well to an excessive note taker such as myself. I hope that next term, or in my second year I get to take some of his modules, if only to listen to Spinal Tap before every lecture.




Humanism as the Ideology Behind Nazism

Cicero: The Founder of Humanism (1)

The Radio Four program, In Our Time, explores the key ideas of our century and of our existence; it is also a fantastic resource for students, because it covers topics from Philosophy to Shakespeare, and being an English student with an interest in Philosophy, consider it to be one of the corner stones of research. Today, I was preparing for an essay with a grounding in humanism and oppression, and so turned to the website and found The program, including the writer of one of the most important humanism texts, Tony Davies, went on to completely change my perception of humanism. It covered the complete history of the ideology from the founder, Cicero, to the somewhat convoluted version we have today.

Humanism is essentially the study of the self, and of human behaviour, and sought to change religious external ceremony from being entirely focussed on a higher authority to focussed on reflection and the understanding of the internal self. Cicero, who was a Roman politician, philosopher and academic in his own right, translated Roman texts alongside the Greek ideologies, and produced a less rigid, dogmatic approach to literature. He sought to produce a model of education that was complete and rounded, and focussed on the study of the self in relation to everyone else. He focussed on the study of poetry, philosophy and even gymnastics. He therefore created the Ciceronian tradition; however this wasn’t an easy, because as a part of this, he had to redefine terms such as “humanitas” to mean something pragmatic, that the Roman psyche could understand. Nevertheless, he managed to associate this new ‘humanist’ approach with a political basis, and thus formed the basis of Renaissance humanism. His published letters regarding the subject created the ‘public’ approach the classical education that he sought; and therefore brought the new style into a public arena.

The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters in the fourteenth or fifteenth century can be considered the motor of the Renaissance movement across Europe. The movement was composed of teachers who declared they were in support of the Ciceronian education. They alluded that this would lead to a more sophisticated man and a thoughtful individual, who can obey and support the political system promoted. Italian humanism was increasingly mystical and allegorical. In Northern Europe however it takes on a more Roman character, and the development of an active civic humanism. It produced a sense of belonging to a nation and to humanity as a whole, which was particularly important in the early age of empire.

Our human need to constantly reinvent tradition and investigate our genealogy led to the German fascination with Ancient Greek society; they constructed their own narrative, their own history, and their own education in line with the Ancient Greek tradition. Preserving the integrity of the person and self-reflection led to the perception of humanism among German academics as being very much about preserving the perfect world. However, at some point in the 19th and 20th century, this became far less focussed on the preservation of yourself as opposed to the preservation of humanity as a whole, and in the case of Germany and Nazism, in preserving the ‘perfect’ race.

At this juncture we can suggest that there would have been two approaches here; either to go back, and examine each person, reinforcing a philosophical, Ciceronian education so that they can react from an intellectual viewpoint to culture and influence, thus creating an intellectually sound race, or to eliminate those who they thought would threaten the ‘purity’ of such a nation. And at this point, Nazism became a dominant political ideology and felt that the destruction of perceived threats would be the most efficient way to preserve the nationalistic narrative that they had created for themselves.

It is possible to suggest then, that Humanism was corrupted by genocide in the 20th century. However now, after de-nazification, and the general rejection of Nazism as a viable political system, we can take the idea of humanism back to its roots, simultaneously confronting the tainted history it now carries (or that we can allude to it carrying) and return to the idea of the individual, a philosophical education, and perhaps most importantly of all, the independence of the mind. It is this that is perhaps the most defining feature of “pure” humanism which differs radically from that of Nazism; that humanism promotes independence of the mind. It is however this independence that leads to the politicizing of any educational ideology; it is inevitably linked to power structures because through education comes the new leaders, and therefore education cannot ever be mutually exclusive to politics.

I think I shall be spending much more time listening to radio four instead of Ed Sheeran, because I seem to like to absorb strange thoughts such as this. With thanks to

If anyone is wondering what to do on the long winter evenings, try listening to In Our Time on BBC Radio Four; there’s a topic I think for everyone (there’s literally hundreds!)




Professor Herbert Tucker: Scansion and Victorian Seaside Poetry

Professor Herbert Tucker (1)

Today, I woke up feeling extremely productive, and two coffees later, I sat down at my laptop, and began to work on two different essay plans, and a presentation on Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale”. And then the time was four in the afternoon, and I realised, I had somewhere to be. However, this was not a standard university lecture. This was a lecture presented by Professor Herbert Tucker, of the University of Virginia, and I think there was a collective sense of awe in the lecture theatre that someone of such stature in the field of Victorian poetry, would come to our little campus, just to talk to us.

Professor Tucker began his lecture with a comprehensive overview of the nature of scansion. Scansion is the idea of reading poetry, and simultaneously identifying metre, metric feet, and emphasises the importance of the stressed syllable among other things. He has even created a tutorial website,, which guides the student through the different elements of scansion, and even uses poems which are built around software that enables you to go through and mark out the elements of scansion, and have them instantaneously marked. Upon realising that my scansion abilities are mediocre at best, I resolved to go through the website and do my best to learn everything I can on scansion.

However, the truly mind expanding part of the lecture was the second half, and it focussed on Victorian seaside poetry. Interestingly, Victorian poets were extremely reluctant to associate the concept of holiday fun and the seaside; instead, they preferred to use the seaside as a metaphor for the melancholy of life, and the natural connection of ebbing and flowing to that of the human mind. Enjoyment of the sun then was sacrificed on the altar of “serious” poetic contemplation. This depressing perception of the ocean led to deep contemplation of the natural world, and reflected very serious scientific values of the period, for example those concerned with evolution. Dwelling on the sea however also presents an element of self-absorption; consider for instance, Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale”.

Given Milton’s paradise declines, it is important to recognise the significance of the sea in earlier literature. The significance of water, for example in Hamlet is that Ophelia finally drowns herself in Act Five; water is often associated with rebirth, and with the cleansing of the soul (for example, Christian baptism) however to the Victorian poets it represented the inevitability of the world around them; everything, bar nothing, would continue, even if they ceased to be. It is this that perhaps shapes some of the more melancholy poetry of the period. Maddening levels of sadness is central even as early as the Romantic period; the seaside is fundamentally “the edge” of solidity, and could be construed as a metaphor for the mental state of a person also.

Isolation was a national affliction in Victorian England; individualism provided the ideological reinforcement for this. Separation from love, and from the things that a person loves played a significant part in the isolation found on the seafront; the prominence of the navy, and the industrial revolution which lead to the importance of the merchant navy, meant husbands and wives were often separated and occasionally, never returned to land. To this end, the ocean was ominous and temperamental, as well as deeply threatening.


Poetry on the Victorian shore presents homecoming to elemental truths; in light of these, society felt alienating to the individual because it is disconnected from the natural world that the ocean presents, and it becomes almost artificial in itself. Poetry however experienced a change within Victorian poetry from the visual idea of the sea to the aural effect the sea has on the psyche.

“Poetry in organic and inorganic being.”

Poetry aspires to fuse sensuality and emotion; that is its central aim. This can be deeply connected to the seaside because of its profound spirituality and physicality. This fusion represents the aspiration of the poet in his own right, to his own ends. The return of elements from the sea, for example water, in the form of waves, and stone, in the form of sands, suggests a repetitive theme in finite body however this ‘resurrection’ happens an infinite number of times.

One of the poets discussed is Christina Rossetti. Her poetry was rarely cheerful, however her pentameter’s idiosyncrasies allow the reader to follow a degree a plainness that is deeply endearing and yet incredibly sad. She crosses into an allegorical representation of time and hope because she keeps faith with continual natural elements that exist in perfect time. Rossetti’s brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, was very much connected to similar imagery. He often uses the metaphysical accompaniments based on the lapse of time and its inevitability. The poem, “The Sea-Limits”, considers aurally the period of breaking waves with its rhyme scheme. Visually it also presents the pattern of waves coming and going up the beach and back.

The poetry of the sea and the melancholy themes suggest the brevity of life, and the difficulties that life itself presents. Many of the poems are geographically specific; many of the poems are based at certain points around the country and it would be extremely interesting to map these locations perhaps as part of a thesis. The differences in tidal effects and the way they were written suggests that the pattern of the tide may have physically impacted their literature.

“The bodily solicitations of poetry.”

In conclusion, I found the lecture extremely engaging; Professor Herbert Tucker truly changed my perception of attitudes within Victorian England and Victorian seaside; the depth of the human mind can be compared to the depth of the sea, and the use of the metaphor of the sea for the turbulence of the psyche is an extremely insightful view of sadness and the human mind. I look forwards to reading his book, Epic, when I next venture out of my flat towards the library.





Plato’s Symposium

Attending a philosophy reading group serves to make you feel simultaneously more intelligent, and one hundred times more ignorant than one ever considers possible; it shows you that there are relatively few people in the world who truly get to experience philosophy, however that you are no better than anyone else in that the concept of it is baffling.

The Genius of Plato (1)

Plato’s Symposium is influential in a number of ways; primarily, it tries to define the nature of love, and declares that the highest and most developed form of love is the love of knowledge, and prioritising a love of knowledge over a love of physical engagement with another. Plato in this text also attempts to conceptualize love; love as a part of everything to music, to medicine and of people.

Gender issues are also raised in this influential text; the highest form of love, Plato suggests is that between men; women are given relatively little significance, performing only a reproductive function when engaging with a man. Feminists here would stomp their feet; especially when the issue of the creation of humanity is discussed.

According to this diatribe of ideas of love, the woman was created when God split his creation into two, causing a person to search for their other ‘half’ for the rest of their life. However, this makes some of us distinctly uncomfortable, when one considers that without a ‘great’ love, or a soul mate, we are not complete, or whole. This suggests a lack within ourselves, that we will attempt to fill; however raises more questions than it answers.

– What is the soul?

– Do people ‘lack’ something within themselves which means they have to find others to build off, and grow with?

– Are we truly only halves of ourselves, and so do we need to search for the missing piece of ourselves?

– Can we be truly happy without our other ‘half’?

– Is it possible that human nature will cause a person to be so ambitious that their perceived ‘lack’ can never be truly filled, and thus can a person become so overfilled with other ‘pieces’ of people that they simply cannot be themselves or exist in their own rights?

So honestly, I am not in support of Plato’s Symposium; whilst I like the narrative style, almost as a story of a conversation as opposed to a simple theory presented in essay format, which leads the reader to the point gently, with all of the information driving the assumption, I believe the essay conceptualizes love to the point where it becomes intellectually removed from the emotional feeling; every person experiences love differently, and no relationship between two people will ever be the same as another. I think this may be because I’m a romantic at heart; I have loved, and I will continue to do so, and I will never fall prey to the intellectualism of a feeling; emotion, emphatically, cannot be rationally understood.

I did enjoy the discussion however; Professor Kate Hext has some wonderful ideas about philosophy, and I can’t wait for next week, when we get to argue over the merits of Aristotle’s Poetics over vodka lemonades and crisps.




“Romantic Moderns” – Alexandra Harris

I honestly have met a lecturer who is so engaging that it’s admirable; Alexandra Harris, the author of Romantic Moderns, came to lecture as a part of the “visiting speakers” seminar series that the English department is holding. Her lecture focussed on “Ancient and Modern: Landscapes in the 1930’s and 1940’s”. And it was honestly fantastic.

Professor Harris explored, in a very dynamic, engaging fashion, the relationship between artistic portrayals of the British landscape in mediums from advertisements for petrol, to abstract painters such as John Piper, and the literature and culture of Britain at the time. At the time, nationalism was prominent in Britain, and as the Second World War approached, it became only more vital in the consciousness of the nation. There was however an artistic disagreement between the classical and the surrealist in terms of what would best represent the cultural present of the United Kingdom; Paul Nash explored in particular the relationship between internationalism and indigenous works and used surrealism in conjunction with landscape portrayal. This created an inviting familiarity and at the same time disparity with the British landscape and what people believed they were aware of within it.

Professor Harris also however moved on to explore the relationship between Virginia Woolf specifically, and the landscape of Britain itself. Woolf used to speak her writing aloud as she walked on the moors, allowing them to become part of a very physical rhythm and construction and in this way, she connected her literature to the rhythm of her walks. She found a strong archaeological connection between half remember nursery rhymes, and texts that “bumped” into one another; her own individual perception of literature shaped her physical connection to it.

Literary pilgrimage is a phenomenon in itself, in that English Literature seems to have a landscape attached to it; consider for instance the physical movement over land in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or The Picture of Dorian Grey, which considers a more mental journey over landscape, specifically against the idea of the mentality of death. These pilgrimages therefore can be considered as both physical and mental and manifest themselves across most kinds of literature. Woolf herself considered both the landscape; in her unfinished work, The Waves, she examines physical landscape in conjunction with the mind; however in A Room of One’s Own, mentality is examined alongside the static nature of a home.

Harris’s lecture was fascinating; I feel distinctly privileged to have been able to meet such an admirable academic.


The Beauty of Structuralism

I woke this morning with a bag of defrosted peas melting into my duvet, and a headache worthy of (possibly) some kind of record. So, minor injuries and a plethora of viral infections. But aside from that, I learnt some interesting things today, about structuralism.

I think the most appealing part of structuralism, at least to me, is the fact that unlike most things in literature, it makes sense. It’s completely logical. Essentially structuralism is they idea that a word has no absolute meaning; it relies on context for meaning to be applied. The example that my eccentric professor used was the word:


Now, in English, the word can be used in context of mental pain, or emotional pain. It can be in relation to physical pain as well. However, in a completely separate language, French, “pain” means “bread”. Which is almost as far removed as is humanly possible, from pain. Most of us enjoy toast. (:

The writings of Saussure and Simone De Beauvoir  are fascinating me at the moment. When I next get a spare hour or two (I’m hoping it’s soon, because the flu thing compels me to not want to move) I’m going to start wading through “The Second Sex”. I’m very excited about starting the philosophy reading group too. I’m hoping that soon my mind will begin to expand and accommodate the ideas of pretty much every French philosopher in existence. Although I’m only human and therefore that much genius can really only be absorbed by supercomputer. But I’m certainly going to try my best and hopefully, soon, I’ll be able to incorporate all these ideas into my writing and essays and make something that has a little more depth, and value of meaning.

It’s hard work, wanting to know everything about everything in the world.



A Lecture on the Visual Sounds of Tennyson

So you know the feeling, when you sit down and start listening, and that feeling of fuzzy begins to encompass your brain. That is what I began to feel when I sat down to listen to Dr. Jason Hall, explain his theories on meter, and the perception a person has of meter. Coventry Patmore claims that:

“Meter is only present in the mind”

This assumption of course leads us to believe that meter is in the mind, it is a force of the imagination and subsequently doesn’t really exist in its own right, as a solid product. This means of course that literature, especially poetry, can be considered subjectively and therefore is an individual experience for the reader.

The general question posed therefore is “Should meter be adhered to at all, when read aloud, or should we hear the poem naturally, as though it were prose?” This is especially important when one reads 20th century poets like T.S Eliot, and the idea of Modernism poses another important question to this end; where Modernism sought to break tradition and redefine traditional prescriptive writing styles, such as that of Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”. If meter truly is in the mind of the reader, then is the whole idea of writing to a certain form, or in a certain style, especially in poetry, completely invalidated by the subjective opinion of the reader?

The idea that nothing is solid, but that everything is open to interpretation is both liberating and asphyxiating, because with no prescribed, solid form, there is very little that a person can hold on to, to work through a complex and challenging text. In a sense, prescriptivism provides a hand for the reader to hold, something to focus on when one finds themselves drowning in ideas and words and structures that combine to create cataclysmic confusion. However, being without a babysitter forces you to walk alone, and to stand on your own two feet and just figure it out, alone, possibly with the dictionary as a lonely companion. The intellectual challenge therefore is made innumerably more interesting without structure or support.

I emerged from this talk thinking that I know, and understand very little, about ideas of meter and rhyme, despite a lengthy extended project (which I may upload extracts of soon) on the poetic form used in 14th Century Chaucer. However, through my confusion, I managed to make a little sense; found a little understanding in a sea of ideas that are so sophisticated, that you realise that you are barely an amoeba in the great ocean of English education.

And I can honestly say that I loved every second of it, and I hope that I never lose the want to get better, and know just a little more than I did yesterday.