White Noise Is Rather Tough To Take…

 

White Noise by Don DeLillo was a novel I was expecting to dislike. For some reason, the front cover was repelling me, and I thought it was going to something similar to a postmodern ghost story. I was right, to a certain extent, because Don DeLillo does write a prelude to a ghost story. He maps the mentality of death, and an abject fear of what is to come, and what comes afterwards. His protagonists, Jack Gladney, and his wife, Babette, represent a kind of paralysis of mentality; their fear of death overrides their sense of everything else.

This, I think, can be considered both an advantage and a disadvantage. A disadvantage, because they live, believing that they can and will be dead at any moment; their marriage is overshadowed by a fear of the other dying, and so their petty rows, and Babette’s ‘arrangement’ with Mr Gray is insignificant, in comparison to her fear of losing the physical and emotional entity that is Jack. Therefore in many ways, the sanctity of marriage and union itself is questioned.

The cover that so unnerved me… (1)

Their sense of death however is an advantage because it allows them to explore the parameters of marriage in terms of a whole existence. Instead of a focus on small events, the couple manage to look at everything as a whole. The ‘airborne toxic event’ is not an individual disaster, and instead, the protagonist seems to focus on the impact it has on his entire life; the fact that it is shortened by this unknown threat. In some ways then, the fear of death provides a mechanism so that both protagonists can stay united by the unresolved fear.

The novel places a very heavy emphasis on the importance of technology to modern-day life. Throughout the text, phrases such as “the radio said” are used. This reminds the reader of George Orwell’s 1984, because there is an outside force that influences the character’s movement. The instantaneous information that is available through the television and radio influences the fear of death that Jack and Babette experience; unreliable information seems to only emphasize the unreliable nature of life, and the unpredictability of death. The relative power of the medical industry is also highlighted by Jack’s “brackets and stars” status. His doctor represents an omen, and therefore towards the end of the novel, Jack refuses to visit him, to find out more details of his impending death. This refusal shows a monumental step in his life, because he refuses to indulge the fear itself.

By far my favourite scene however, is when Jack shoots Mr. Gray, the man who has allegedly created the drug that removes a person’s fear of death. The shooting can be seen as an irony, because Mr. Gray represents being fearless. Therefore by causing him serious injury and plotting to kill him, he metaphorically attacks the idea of being unafraid of death. Gunshot wounds are an unnatural way to die, in the same way that it is unnatural to be unafraid of one’s own passing.

The novel itself is an interesting comment on 1980s society, especially because of the novelty value of technology at the time. I enjoyed it far more than I thought I should.

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(1) http://theasylum.files.wordpress.com/2009/05/whitenoise.jpg?w=470

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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!

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(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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Wading through Shakespeare: “Othello”

Shakespeare’s collection of work is a vast and riveting one; however amongst the plays, I’d have to say that Othello  is my favourite. It has all the makings of a modern soap opera: the possibility of adultery, an impossibly attractive cast, the potential for racial abuse… it’s hard to know where to begin to count the ways in which I love this play.

I think my favourite element however would have to be the antithesis of the heroic protagonist; the unlikely military general, who emerges from royal obscurity, likely to be from southern Spain or northern Africa, who is well-known for his linguistic proficiency and the delightful nature of his metaphors. The plot is somewhat drastically altered however when the protagonist’s supposed friend (and haven’t we all got a “fr-enemy”?) seeks to usurp him from his position to become general himself. The ways in which he goes about doing this could alarm even the most devoted Hollyoaks fan, from deception of everyone in the royal court, to the assault of Cassio, the flirtatious nobleman, and finally, the ultimate refusal to confess:

“Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. From this time forth I will never speak word.” – Iago’s final words

Othello and Desdemona (1)

There are few ways more stubborn to exit a play; the complete lack of remorse, and the ability to manipulate everyone in the vicinity of himself is worthy of applause. I consider Iago my favourite villain, purely because he is perfectly timed, in terms of placing tiny hints and clues across the landscape of what ultimately becomes destruction, despite its aesthetic beauty, in Cyprus. The juxtapositions found across Shakespearean literature remind the audience of the decadence of the Elizabethan period, and the rather beautiful paradoxes of circumstance that are symbolic of the nature of revenge tragedy.

Desdemona, in comparison with Othello, can be considered from a feminist perspective. Is she a passive character, playing more of a symbolic role than anything else, a possession to be passed about? Or is she a character who is completely instrumental in her own downfall? Personally, I find it to be the latter. The naivety of her character infuriates me, because looking back from a modern perspective, I feel as though she should have tried a little harder to understand why Othello was behaving in such a repulsive and cagey manner. She applies herself in no particular way, and so from my very modern viewpoint, I wanted her to look a little further, and put the jigsaw puzzle together, before she became a victim of her own circumstances. She is smothered, in a perversely kind way, by her husband. His unwillingness to break her skin or violate her in any way is symbolic of her purity and subsequent lack of progression into the adult world.

Tragedy tends to emerge from outside circumstance, sometimes not even in conjunction with internal factors. (Courtesy of Professor Nick Groom)

I hope you get to watch the adaptation and read the play, because it’s a brilliant example of the classic revenge tragedy.

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(1) https://sarahalicewaterhouse.wordpress.com/wp-includes/js/tinymce/plugins/wpeditimage/img/image.png

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