To Read Or Not To Read; That Is the Question

I’ve often wondered about literary opinion, and how literary opinion differs between people. Everyone understands the world in a different way to somebody else, and so naturally, they will understand literature differently too. Literature, and one’s attitude and understanding towards it, depends on experiences. Experiences of education, literature, whether you enjoyed your lessons when you were in primary school, whether you have a natural love of reading. These are all key factors in understanding what literature is, and whether you enjoy it, or despise it.

I know people who have yet to finish an entire book, and I suspect there are people who go their whole lives barely reading books and magazines. This is of course, a life choice. Whether you want to read or not is entirely up to you; education demands a certain amount of reading. If you choose a literature, or essay based degree, you’ll find reading to be nonnegotiable. Arts courses tend to be much more vocational, and this choice depends very much on the style of learning one is accustomed to.

Philosophy of the Mind (1)

It’s difficult to know how you’ll feel about different kinds of literature, until you experience it. For example, I don’t like all kinds of literature. I really dislike mythical Greek and Roman texts, as well as finding James Joyce’s Ulysses utterly intolerable. Some regard it as an example of the greatest literary creation of all time. I think it is a grammatical abomination, and something that is so complicated that it begins to lose its point, because it’s completely inaccessible. Conversely however, I thoroughly enjoy T.S Eliot, who is well-known for regarding literature as an elite pursuit and past time.

Philosophy is something else that is considered highbrow, and rarely brought down to an accessible level. It is complicated because it involves thinking about the makings of the universe, and theorizing on that most illusive of characters, knowledge. However it’s less complex than some think; it’s a matter of having a good teacher and a simple reader, to introduce someone to the rudimentary elements of philosophy. There’s no need to over-complicate things, and dive straight into analysis on Plato’s dialogues.

I consider literature to be one of my greatest loves, and I consider almost everything to be literature. I think that the well-written blog can be considered literature of all sorts; some blogs can be understood as literotica, some can be understood as beautiful prose. New writing is the writing that will one day be considered classic, and will belong to the modern cannon, and so I think it’s important to look at new literature, read magazines, of all kinds; fashion, photography, literary; they’re all part of a modern culture that will, like all cultures before it, be revered by future generations.

It’s all about enjoyment, you see. Culture is formulated through the things that people enjoy; a city with a strong opera programme tends to become linked to the opera as a pursuit and therefore becomes a cultural construct. To this end, we create our own culture. I’d like to think we do, at least.

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(1) http://philosophy.uchicago.edu/workshops/_files/Philosophy-of-Mind-Workshop.jpg

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Good Afternoon, Dr. Freud

Now, I’ve always been something of a sceptic when it comes to psychoanalysis. I don’t really buy into brain-dwellers, and I think that ferreting around in the subconscious is sometimes like digging around a landmine; sometimes, things are buried for a reason. However, our American cousins seem to have a lot of faith in the practice, and since I have to revise the subject anyway, I thought I’d embrace it and see what all the fuss is about.

Freudian psychoanalysis is a method of literary interpretation that places heavy emphasis on the nature of the mind, and how the unconscious influences of the super-ego, ego and id affect the way we conduct our literary and everyday lives. Freud wrote a number of important essays on various topics of literary interpretation. These include his thoughts on narcissism, the short comings of the pleasure principle, the issues surrounding proposed infantile sexuality, and the importance of dream analysis.

A Formidable Man… (1)

Psychoanalysis as a discipline focusses on the talking cure as a way of establishing and tackling the root behind one’s neuroses. This approach can be applied to literature in so far as one searches for one’s neuroses hidden behind imagery that can be found in a text. Freud suggests that everything we do is the result of impulses and therefore to look for these impulses can be conducive to providing a literary analysis of the subject.

All of Freud’s literature is based around the concept of the unconscious, which is deemed as having three levels. The first is the super-ego, which represents the expectations of society and is widely considered as being the voice of morality. The ego represents desires, and attempts to mediate between the id and the superego, whilst the id represents the base human instincts; it is something that is inaccessible.

Freud’s theory of dreams tends to relate back to the content of the id, and the process of establishing the dream-work is perhaps the most important in terms of psychoanalysis. Latent content is the fundamental basis of analysis, made all the more obscure by way of the fact that it is hidden deep inside the content of the dream.

Condensation is the Freudian understanding that one object in a dream represents a number of complex ideas, therefore the content of the dream is deceptively small. Alongside condensation is the concept of displacement, where the dream object’s emotional significance is separated from it’s real object or content and attached to an entirely different one, in order to not arouse the suspicions of the dreamer. Dreams are never simple and represent a huge amount of latent content.

The pleasure principle is something that is always sublimated to something else; the human psyche is more complex than simply the pursuit of pleasure. Other pursuits, such as repeating a certain action, are repeated in order to fulfil the unfulfilled wish. The converse principle, or the reality principle, counters the pleasure principle, when people choose to defer fulfilling a certain desire on the basis that circumstantial reality is opposed to this desire. Society therefore intervenes, creating the reality principle. Freud defines maturity as an ability to tolerate continual deferred pleasure, in favour of conforming with social expectations and understanding. Therefore the ego has become reasonable, and obeys the reality principle in favour of understanding only the pleasure principle. The reality principle does also seek to fulfil desires; however it does so whilst taking into account the problems of circumstantial reality.

This concludes my elementary understanding of Freudian theory, and also proved a very useful revision task.

Thank you for reading!

(:

(1) http://specularimage.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/freud12.jpg?w=640

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Comrade Stalin Makes A Comeback

Stalin has long represented a period of history that I find fascinating; one of my interests is the history behind the Russian communist period, and the ways in which the dictatorship found such a huge proficiency. The ideas of communism are so profoundly different to the systems employed in the UK that one cannot help wanting to research them, and want to know more. Fundamentally however, communism in its purest form, the form employed in The Communist Manifesto, has never existed as a social construct; some of its ideas have been implemented, however it has never occurred as Marx dictated. Instead, communism to the modern world is representative of dictatorships, and of huge loss of life.

Stalin himself was a man of personal power and had an entire court, often referred to as “The Court of the Red Tsar”, in his command. He worked extremely hard in maintaining a culture of fear, both of the regime and of himself, and when reading his bibliography, one becomes acutely aware of the sheer force of manipulation he applied in relation to his comrades. The power balance was maintained by a system of intricate politics, designed mainly to maintain Stalin’s prestige throughout his rule.

I think what is most interesting to consider however is the idea that Stalin was something of a family man; in contrast to his infamous counterpart, Adolf Hitler, he had two wives, and three children, although both of his wives died; it is often alleged that his second wife committed suicide, after an argument with her husband. His oldest son, Yakov,  attempted suicide by shooting, however survived, causing his rather to remark “He can’t even shoot straight.” When he was taken hostage by German forces and held in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, he committed suicide by running into an electrified fence.

Stalin kept a close circle of comrades around him much of the time, often summoning them for evenings of drinking and watching foreign films. This informality (which was in itself a facade) creates the impression of a dictator with more than one dimension; he enjoyed the social aspects of having an unlimited amount of power, however equally, used these forced social events as a way to confirm his own position. His most trusted colleagues however tended to be enraptured by Stalin’s presence, however also terrified by it; there was never a “safe job” within the Soviet Union.

The progression of communism... (1)

Today, Stalin remains as a figurehead in Russia, especially among the older generation. In 2011, it was reported that Stalinism was seeing a surge in popularity, and people were becoming less inclined towards de-Stalinization. Unlike Germany, the public of Russia still feel as though Stalin did some good for the country, and arguably, in the aftermath of the Second World War, he led a country to be one of two leading superpowers. The rise of Stalin’s popularity shows the potency of his influence over the country.

Today however, there are still several communist based political systems in existence; North Korea is an obvious example, and China still maintains ideologies of communism throughout it’s government; for example, freedom of speech and of research is still tightly restricted. Vietnam and Cuba remain today as communist states.

I’m rather interested to know how communism as an ideology will progress in relation to the modern world, and in relation to the recession we are experiencing; will it produce a rise in popularity, or will it see a decline in popularity? Perhaps there’s a dissertation paper, right there…

(:

(1) http://www.freewebs.com/webnz/Communism.bmp

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On Knowledge, Books, and Post-modernity

We all have something that we collect, something that we cherish; some people collect stamps, others collect antiques; some collect photographs, and some people just collect friends. I collect books; I have a couple of hundred of them, in all shapes and sizes. I love the “new book smell” and I love how they all sit together on my bookshelves, looking out over my room. I like the order, and the consistency; I love that they all, in one way or another, relate together, and are essentially the same. I like the continuity there.

Post-modernity however (I’ve been reading introductions to it all day), would disagree with my “unified” bookshelf; it would create “the other”. It would differentiate between genre, and the time in which it was published. Post-modernity essentially subverts the essence of an object in order to form a critique of itself, making post-modernity a paradox that cannot be unraveled, because the definition of something is the playground of its subversion. “There is nothing outside the text.”- Jacques Derrida.

Trust somebody to make a mess. It's a beautiful example of postmodern art however, by Marcus A. Jansen. This is however not quite the same as post-modernity, which has a broader focus in society and politics.

You see, I like to play with paradoxes, but the challenge I have is that I’m not logically minded; I end up having to make spider maps so I know what I mean, and what I think. The same thing applies for when I’ve read a complex essay. It seems that my brain resembles a computer; sometimes you have to use the disk defragmenter to clean up all those little nuggets of knowledge, otherwise the computer might slow down, heat up, or just outright explode. I often suspect the latter.

I spend an awful lot of time pondering how my lecturers have spent as much time as they have in the research lab; how they’ve understood all these magical things, how they’ve written groundbreaking papers about the forefront of literary criticism. I can barely understand my introductory postmodern research, and I’ve already made six diagrams about Derrida. It is humbling when you realise that you know absolutely nothing at all, in comparison with what they already know. Even they don’t know everything; nobody does, but they know more than most of us ever will do. This is mainly however because it’s their career choice; it’s what they wanted to do. I like that they can inspire you to enjoy a text purely because they’re so passionate about it that they can present you with facets of it that you couldn’t hope to find on your own.

So, back to my beautiful bookshelf. I love the order, and the tidiness of it. I like it’s superficially orderly ways. But what I like the most, and the reason that I will continue to collect them, is that behind that smoke and mirrors facade of order, and logic, is a world that can’t ever be fully dissected. It can be examined and explored hundreds of times, but no one will ever know every secret of every book. And I like that behind this simple exterior, is a rich, decadent world. But what I like the most is that by looking at this world, I will obtain a degree, alongside invaluable skills in analysis, close reading, and research. And I really do enjoy it, too.

(:

(1) http://www.contemporary-art-dialogue.com/image-files/postmodern-art-surreal.jpg

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part II

A Game of Chess (1)

So, today, our rapid little romp through T.S Eliot’s most complex and challenging poem continues, with Part II: “A Game of Chess”. To my mind at least, this part is far more focussed on one issue, when compared with the first part; in this part, chess can be considered as a metaphor for the strategic nature of the relationships between men and women which become strategic, mindless, and devoid of soul due to the demands of society, or one’s financial situation.

This part essentially divides into two; firstly, the relationship between the unnamed, but obviously affluent woman and her husband and surroundings. This relationship is described in lines 77-138. Many critics have suggested that this part, which essentially focusses on falsity, and surface values, was based on Eliot’s own relationship with Vivienne Haigh-Wood, his first wife. The woman in the poem is described as being coated in “synthetic perfumes”, and concerned with the “glitter of her jewels”. This materialist attitude is something that Eliot was profoundly alarmed by, especially when he was married to the aforementioned; his issues with intimacy extended into his marriage, and slowly, Vivienne deteriorated mentally. It is however important to note that she had never been entirely mentally stable, often recognised as being a woman of fragile health. Despite her increasing instability, Eliot refused to divorce her; he put her into several care facilities, and only remarried after Vivienne’s death in 1947. Many have suggested that this was less out of love, than out of duty.

As this first section of Part II continues however, the density of allusion continues to increase; there are references to Philomel, a key character in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and also one of the Greek myths. The content of this myth includes rape and mutilation, specifically the removal of Lavinia’s tongue; this creates a sense of claustrophobia, and the idea that justice can never quite be accomplished, because nothing she says can be quite understood. As mentioned in earlier posts, the theme of miscommunication is central to Eliot’s masterpiece. An oblique reference to Vivienne’s interpretations of the world follow, during the somewhat disjointed dialogue that one can assume occurs between the writer, and the object of his writing; this could indeed have been a conversation between Eliot and his wife. Line 138 references “lidless eyes” which is a bizarre reversal of the previous interpretations of vision, and the ability to see; ‘lidless’ suggests something is not correct and despite the eyes being open, nothing is really being seen.

Lines 139-172 are in my opinion much more interesting, purely because they represent a more ‘realistic’ kind of social anxiety that would have been present among the working classes. The working classes of the time would have been affected by the changes that the industrial revolution, and changing attitudes towards behaviour had brought. This is represented by Eliot’s perception of the two women, discussing a husband; overall, the tone is highly derogatory towards the woman who has deteriorated in appearance, due to several pregnancies. The ‘friend’ (and incidentally, main speaker),  makes continual reference to Lil’s husband, and his attitude towards her physical appearance, whilst also alluding to the fact that “if you don’t give it him, there’s others will”. Whilst he has been away (as most men were, during the First World War), Lil appears to have been dreading his return somewhat. Line 164 however is the most telling, particularly of Eliot’s potential attitude towards the situation Lil finds herself in: “What you get married for, if you don’t want children?”. The idea that Lil is merely useful for fulfilling her husband’s sexual needs, and bearing him children, can be considered an enormous feminist statement, especially in conjunction with the degrading attitudes that surround it.

Oil Painting of T.S Eliot (2)

The final few lines present a bizarre ending to this second part; the friend, is asked to dinner with Albert and Lil, and the use of “get the beauty of it hot” suggests an underlying message contained within that social call. Philandering husbands have never been an uncommon phenomena, and post World War One was no different, because of the influence of “the bright young things” and the mantra of “carpe diem” that emerged as a reaction against the total destruction of so many young men. The final two lines of the section are also the final lines of Ophelia, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet; fundamentally, she drowns herself. Water, to Eliot is a key theme, representing spirituality and the ability to be reborn. The absence of water in Part I represent’s it’s corruption, and the final lines of Part II do begin to allude to the beginning of the end of this kind of corruption; the poem has not yet reached its true turning point, however the tension between the corruption and the resolution certainly begins to build, from Part III onwards.

I hope my T.S Eliot exploration is holding some degree of interest, although it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a useful revision for myself too! Hope you’re enjoying the blog series. The next post will, of course, be on Part III, “The Fire Sermon”.

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(1) http://nettonet.org/Nettonet/101%20Painting/Studies/gris.jpg

(2) http://www.independent.co.uk/migration_catalog/article5081860.ece/ALTERNATES/w380/ts+eliot.jpeg

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: Part I

As promised, today is all about Part I of The Wasteland, “The Burial of the Dead”. Even if you hadn’t read the poem, you’d immediately guess, from the title of the section that it was not to be all flowers, joy and rainbows. In fact, you’d probably feel somewhat apprehensive. The title itself however is not simply a title; Eliot disliked making superficial statements. Instead, it can be considered an allusion to the Church of England’s funeral service, and also the Cumaean Sibyl, whom we have encountered in the epigraph. The very phrase has implications of endings and rebirth outside  Christianity however, in various elements of life, including the idea of laying something to rest, and cleansing oneself of the past. The Wasteland is fraught with all manner of allusions, from religious texts to mythological ones.

Part I is broadly based on the idea of the elimination of the dead, and the deteriorating nature of society; an early example of this social deterioration is the scene in the Hofgarten, line 10. The statement of “drinking coffee” gives us the impression that the things that take place within the Hofgarten are irrelevant, and are superficial. This superfluous society is a theme that plagues the whole poem; a sense of spiritual degradation, and a lack of meaning in anything whatsoever plagues the society which Eliot describes, and is alienated from. This theme is further expanded upon in lines fifty to sixty; the idea of faux fortune was a profound departure from the fortune and path of a person as prescribed by the Church and scriptures of a number of religions. Eliot’s disdain for this falsity is portrayed in lines such as “If you see dear Mrs. Equitone/Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:/One must be so careful these days.”

An artistic interpretation of the first section of "The Wasteland" (1)

One of the predominant features of the poem as a whole, is the idea that people are blinded, or unable to see, and Eliot includes a number of blatant allusions; for example “Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not see, and my eyes failed”, alongside others, including “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyant/has a bad cold”. This would mean she’d be unable to ‘see’ into the future. “Those are pearls that were his eyes” could also be considered a reference to blindness, and the inability to see past riches, past opulence, to the ‘bigger picture’. This extended metaphor for the benefits of sight continues throughout the poem, and to Eliot at least, to be a very real concern.

Perhaps  the most important part of Part I however, is the final stanza, and the allusion to Baudelaire’s Parisian ‘unreal city’. Eliot however manipulates this allusion to symbolise the working masses in London, in what is to me, perhaps one of the most moving lines in the poem; “A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The second line in this extract is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno. The ‘dead’ whom Eliot describes are, to the author at least, a product of the Victorian Industrial Revolution, and of privatisation; they had become slaves to their jobs, and to the city; they lacked spirituality because they had become materially motivated, financially encouraged, as opposed to motivated by finding spiritual guidance, or absolution.

The theme of corruption and sexual exploitation is probably the predominant theme in the first three parts of the poem; it is not until Part IV, “Death by Water”, that a kind of rebirth seems to occur; the spirit has, to Eliot at least, be explored, and murdered for being corrupt before it can be reborn and made into something that can salvage the poem’s namesake, “the waste land”. This part of the poem however contains an almost imperceptible reference to salvation; “Here she said/Is your card, the drowned Phoenician sailor.” Here, again, we find another allusion, to the ancient mythological world, and the character who finally represents the very preliminary stages of salvation, in Part IV.

The ‘deadness’ as represented in the title of the poem is a metaphor returned to in the final lines of the poem; “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”; the frozen ground which is described just before represents a natural deadness; a wasted land, through the lack of spirituality.

Elizabeth Harrison's copy of Dante's "Inferno", which has been an important literary text for centuries, influencing almost every significant author. (2)

In conclusion, the first part of the poem introduces a number of preliminary metaphors, concepts and allusions; the first being superficiality, and the exploitation of materialism. Added to this mixture in the succeeding section is the allusion to aesthetic and sexual exploitation. The idea of the inability to rejuvenate, and be reborn, is also introduced, as are a number of allusions to a variety of texts and concepts, including Greek mythology, Tristan and Isolde, Baudelaire, the Grail myths, Buddhism, Christianity, Dante, Petronius… the list goes on. Shakespeare also plays a significant role, later in the poem. The poet himself had two main works that influenced the writing of the plays; Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The poem is an almost endless web of allusions, and metaphor and is possibly one of the most complicated texts ever created.

The next post will be focussed on what is in my opinion, one of the most interesting parts, because it focusses on sexual exploitation and the way in which Eliot perceived it. Part II to follow!

(:

(1) http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/df/Peter_Paul_Rubens_082.jpg

(2) http://archon.nl.edu/archon/index.php?p=digitallibrary/getfile&id=11&preview=long

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Wandering Through “The Wasteland”: The Epigraph

For this week, I’ve decided to do a six part post on T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, possibly the most famous of the modernist poems, and certainly of Eliot’s own collection. Eliot’s position as a critic and essayist almost prevails over his reputation as a modernist poet. T.S Eliot however was distinctly different from his modernist counterparts, such as Woolf and Joyce, in that instead of embracing the rejection of tradition, he found the lack of spirituality and social values abhorrent, and he himself struggled with issues surrounding intimacy and his own faith. In time, he converted to Anglicanism, however his discomfort with faith led him to write extensively about the subject in The Wasteland.

The epigraph as printed in the text (1)

The poem itself is also a product of Eliot’s extended intellectual life; he had studied Sanskrit at university and was well versed in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. An example of this is the title of part three, “The Fire Sermon”, which is a famous text in Buddhism. The final words of the poem, “Shantih, shantih, shantih”, also originate in Sanskrit, and translate to “inner peace.” Eliot was also very familiar with the Greek myths, and the Holy Grail myths. The Wasteland is primarily an inter-textual work, one that not only exists as itself, in its own right, but one that is deeply involved in texts spanning thousands of years.

Eliot believed that everyone should familiarise themselves with the myths and legends, especially spiritual and religious ones; The Wasteland is almost exclusive, because only those (at least at the time) who were well read would have understood the full implications of the poem. However, the poem is such that each time it is read, it is understood in a different way, and a number of literary critical schools have sought to examine the poem, however none particularly successfully; it stands alone, and is, in my opinion at least, unrivalled in terms of nature and style, by any other poem.

The poem’s creation was a lengthy process, because it was repeatedly edited by his long-term friend and renowned critic, Ezra Pound. The extent of Pound’s input can never be truly confirmed, however it is fair to suggest that to a certain extent, Pound’s style affected the way in which the poem was formed, and so could be considered not only a work of Eliot’s genius and intellect, but also in a small way, of Pound’s genius also. The poem and epigraph are dedicated to Ezra Pound.

The very beginning of the poem is the epigraph, an extract from Petronius’s Satyricon, and really summarises the nature of what is to follow. Petronius’s Satyricon is a Latin work of fiction, of both verse and prose. This in itself is a tumultuous combination and symbolises, at least to those who know of the text, that The Wasteland may also be tumultuous in style and structure. The epigraph reads:

“Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Sibylla ti theleis; respondebat illa: apothanein thelo.” 

Roughly translated, the Latin reads:

“I have seen with my own eyes, the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her “What do you want?”, she replied, “I want to die.” 

The Cumaean Sibyl wished for eternal life, and neglected to ask for eternal youth, and therefore as time passed, she was unable to die, and simply withered away, caught in a jar, almost like a gilded bird. This summarises essentially a spiritual withering, in a metaphorical sense; without youth and beauty, there appears to be no reason to live, and so she is caught in eternal suffering, because of her great vanity. Vanity and the superfluous nature of beauty are themes that run throughout the poem, particularly in the first three parts of the poem. Eliot was repulsed by the obsession of beauty and vanity and so sought to move away from this, wherever possible, especially since it was very much linked to the sexual, something Eliot was uncomfortable with throughout his life.

The conflict of religion, of modernisation, of industrialisation and of reformed society as a whole were all issues that Eliot  was deeply concerned with, however the most prominent of these issues was the issue of spirituality and sanctity of spirit. The issue of spirituality (something rather separate from religion) is explored in great detail throughout the following five passages. The poem is structured in five sections, although these sections can be considered poems of abstraction in their own right; they feed into one another and follow a progressive, reflective pattern.

It is however important, I think, to remember that The Wasteland is not just an intellectual work, and nor is it purely autobiographical. It certainly contains elements of autobiography, however like all texts, there are an infinite number of interpretations that can be applied to it, and it can translate in a number of ways for different people. It is also something fundamentally beautiful, poetic; something that can be enjoyed as well as analysed. It’s probably the poem that confirmed my desire to study English Literature, and the poem that confirmed my love of modernism.

This image shows the first page of Part One, with the original title: "He Do the Police in Different Voices", the original transcript. As you can see if you read closely enough, this version retains little of the finished version, except the section title: "The Burial of the Dead" (2)

Tomorrow I shall be writing about Part I: The Burial of the Dead, which is the beginning of the exploration of spiritual corruption as Eliot sees it.

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(1) https://sarahalicewaterhouse.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/thewastelandepigraph.jpg?w=250

(2) http://media-cdn.pinterest.com/upload/22377329368218787_D5HthlbB_c.jpg

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On Decadence and Aesthetics

English students are renouned for being fussy, sometimes pretentious students; we are the fussy eaters of the academic world. We tend to know our tastes very early on, purely because my the time we reach undergraduate level, we’ve been forced into reading something from every movement, whether we were aware of it or not. And the impressions that these types of literature make on us as children, tend to remain with us forever.

Personally, I have little patience with Greek and Roman literature, with the exception of Tales From Ovid. Mythology does not tickle my fancy very often, and instead, I’m rather enamoured with modernism, aestheticism, and nineteenth century Russian literature. I occasionally dip into the pond of Victorian certainty, when I fancy something rather more tame; occasionally into a little satire, when I’m feeling sceptical. But when I’m bored, I’ll venture to look at Virginia Woolf, and if I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I’ll look into James Joyce too. When I’m in need of comfort, I’ll read some Wilde, and feel much, much better about almost everything. If I had to choose  a favourite period, I’d be hanging somewhere between aesthetics and modernism. I dare say I’d attempt to look at both of them.

An excellent quotation of Oscar Wilde (1)

The sublime was a concept present in the late Romantic period; an idea that succeeded the concept of the picturesque, but came before aestheticism. The sublime essentially meant something of overwhelming natural beauty, something that was difficult to process intellectually. Wordsworth writes of the sublime in one of his most famous poems, Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey (1798). This revolutionary piece of writing marked a progression in the field of aesthetics, being a truly sublime piece of writing, however is not quite a fully formed aesthetic work, still considering issues of the deity, which can be considered political. Aestheticism fundamentally leans against the inclusion of political and social themes within art.

Arguably however, Samuel Coleridge, a lover of science and geology, but also a lover of literature and poetry, wrote the first widely appreciated work in the field of aesthetics, in his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Whilst many can argue that the poem condemns a certain number of practices, for example the shooting of the albatross, which can be considered a metaphor for wasting life, he also writes seemingly “on the surface”, and for pleasure. This kind of writing seems connected to Oscar Wilde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Two of the biggest Romantic poets formed the basis of aestheticism; Keats, Byron, and Shelley went on to build on this very scarce foundation, left by the two famous writers.

Dante's Lady Lilith; an excellent example of the aesthetic period (2)

To my mind at least, the picturesque, the sublime, and the aesthetic seem to be progressions of one another; in picturesque artwork, a frame is used, to either include or exclude a concept or image, and the painter has final control over the scene; the imagination and the reality of a location or concept amalgamate to create something that is picturesque, but fundamentally, it is not purely realistic. Aestheticism takes this concept further by widening where the ‘picture’ can come from, and what frame can be used, and there is absolutely no requirement for the inclusion of sociopolitical themes.

Aestheticism emerged partly as a reaction to the Enlightenment as a later extension of Romanticism; instead of looking at science, and factual things, the idea of art being created because it is beautiful emerged. Oscar Wilde is probably the most prominent of the aesthetic writers, alongside people such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ overrode any social concerns, or political agendas. This was really a period of decadence and beauty.

I’m something of a fan of decadence and beauty in literature; I love things that will fascinate my mind, blow it backwards, and take me to something of a utopia whereby there are no deep social issues. Sometimes, it is nice to be immersed in such a beautiful world, and to escape darker, more imposing literature such as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or Devils. Literature provides a point of escape for so many people; the decadent writers lived in a world that preceded world wars, common invasion, and a plethora of other genocides; a practice that ran rampant throughout the 20th century. In many ways, their world was something far more innocent; the British Empire covered a quarter of the globe, and nothing ever truly threatened the innately British superiority complex. In many ways, it was a world so supremely different from ours that it could be considered a whole other culture, an almost untainted one.

I wonder what everyone else finds fascinating…

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(2) http://gypsyscarlett.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/art-dante-gabriel-rossetti-lady-lilith-18681.jpg

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Learning the A, B, C…

When we first started learning the alphabet, words were little squiggles that we struggled to understand. A, B, C… Words were an uphill climb; they represented education that most of us, at the age of three or four, simply didn’t understand, or wish to understand. We were generally far more concerned with play-dough, and the possibility of sticking pasta onto paper with PVA glue. Many of us, even now, as adults, still would rather play with play-dough than plough through the science of linguistics. However, as writers, poets, authors and speakers of language in general, we become fascinated with words. With grammar. And most specifically, the way in which squiggles can be used to create something with significance in an infinite number of ways.

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As I have mentioned before, structuralism and post-structuralism is very much concerned with the idea of language in relation to the world; the way in which it’s meaning is almost completely subjective. This can also be considered in relation to grammatical format; modernism in particular sought to remove conventional narrative forms to produce something more internally focussed, with less emphasis on the outside world, instead being a part of the protagonist’s psyche; consider Ulysses and To the Lighthouse; these are fundamentally modernist texts, using the trademark stream of consciousness format which one will greet as though it is Marmite; it will either be loved or despised, and rightly so; the liberation of being completely free to explore outside the parameters of conventional narrative can be fantastical. However it can also be a form of imprisonment to a reader, because they become absorbed in attempting to understand the outer parameters, and tend to then read against the grain to find this alienating meaning. This can potentially remove the pleasure from the act of reading itself.

So in our quest to understand the entirety of English Literature, or world literature, we grapple with ideas, and find that even once we think we’ve understood, that this understanding is only one interpretation of one meaning. This could be ridiculously frustrating, however for the knowledge junkies among us, it simply means we will never quite conquer the subject, but surely this makes it infinitely more interesting.

I’d be interested to know how everyone feels about the fluctuating nature of language, and whether its futile or fascinating.

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(1) http://blogs-images.forbes.com/marketshare/files/2011/08/abc_blocks.jpg

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Thoughts on Post Structuralism

Today, I was typing out my post structuralism notes into my laptop; remembering how bemused I was, in comparison to today, made me realise that university does inspire a degree of progress in a person; even though most of the time, you feel as though you are swimming against a tide, attempting to conquer the ever-growing reading list (an impossible task). The vague understanding of week three, in comparison to today’s more developed understanding made me think about how much I adore my course; despite the quagmire of definitions, reading and concepts, it does work. The ideas must be percolating in my head; spinning around in a subconscious, dream-like kind of way, ethereal and inexplicable, but they are there. And so then I began to think.

The most appealing idea of post structuralism is the idea of the “ghosts of meaning” proposed by Jacques Derrida. Nothing in linguistics can be absolute; it is in flux, continuously evolving and each linguistic interpretation is different to each person. This means that when you are in “discussion” with your parents about for instance, the wing mirror that may or may not have detached itself from the car door, you can simply argue that this is just their interpretation of events based on their background which then allows you to argue that your background (and therefore your linguistic experience) is different to theirs. This opens a whole new range of ways to try to prove your parents wrong. This is of course to be done at your own risk.

Another brilliant facet of post structuralism is the idea of the de-centred universe. This means, simply put, that you cannot even be sure of where, or even what, you are because there is no external way to measure yourself against something else. Nothing has a central, solid meaning, because like language, everything is in flux. Being completely unaware of your position in the universe is fascinating, and to a certain extent, also liberating. You are in some ways therefore completely free to consider yourself as being absolutely anywhere in the universe. Again, this can be used as a mechanism to argue with authorities, e.g. parents, and teachers. Unfortunately, even the most open-minded teacher is unlikely to accept the argument that because of the theory of post structuralism, you are not entirely certain that you are at a true school at all, and even less sure that your supposed exam board is real, and therefore why should you have to write five thousand word pieces of coursework? If you were feeling particularly inventive, you could even drop in a word or two about string theory physics, and the meaning of the universe. If anyone really succeeds, then please let me know.

Of my critical theory repertoire, post structuralism is the one I identify with most clearly, despite the immense complexity of it when applied to any given text. It’s also fascinating when applied to real life. I think a thesis on Derrida would be extraordinarily complex and yet extremely rewarding. I’m sure several brain cells would die attempting to process such a seething mass of information. Nonetheless, I’m looking forwards to being able to revisit the theory next term; I like understanding difficult ideas. It’s a good thing too really, since I’m at university.

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