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Jul 31, 2014

Aristotle's travels

Here is a map plotting Aristotle's movements, using major events from his biography.  Includes the locations of Plato's Academy and Aristotle's Lyceum in Athens, Greece.


Jul 15, 2014

Writing and Discussion prompts on "For a Breath I Tarry" by Roger Zelazny

Q: What do we learn about what it means to be human? Will it ever be possible for machines to become as it were, human?

Q: What makes Frost, unique, special, different? How does this motivate his curiosity in wanting to learn more about humanity?

Q: What happened to the people on earth? describe the setting. who runs the earth and for what purpose? Who are Solcom and Divcom and why are they opposed? What role does Mordel play on the story? Explain the wager between Frost and Mordel

Q: Trace the process Frost takes in attempting to become human. What do these steps suggest about the essence of human nature? What are the obstacles and how does he overcome them? Why does frost have trouble making art?

Q: What is the ore crusher's story and why is it important to the plot and theme? Why does Frost go to Bright Defile and what does he find there?

Q: Wow does Frost become human? How do they know he has successfully achieved his goal?

Q: Explain the relevance of the allusion to the A.E. Housman poem

Teaching Notes on E.T.A Hoffman, "The Sandman"

Citations refer to Heather Masri's text Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.

The Uncanny is a theme we will look at: "uncanny doubles, fatal obsessions, and dark secrets. Uncertainty about boundaries -- between reality and fantasy, between the animate and the inanimate -- is typical of Hoffman's work, and a key to its disturbing effects" (Masri 196).

The Sandman is a key story in the history of Gothic and Romantic fiction. It is a precursor to Science Fiction and horror genres. There is an uneasiness about the creative powers of technology. Automata were popular back then. Automata are mechanical dolls that could perform lifelike tricks. They are precursors of modern robots.

Hoffman is most interested in the pathology of the imagination in "The Sandman." Is Nathaniel victimized by real supernatural forces or by his own diseased mind? This ambiguity charges the story with tension, and it is these aspects of horror that give it a lingering appeal to audiences.

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE

Hoffman begins it as an epistolary tale: a set of letters written between the characters, then he shifts to the participant narrator (a friend of Nathaniel) who tells the rest of the story, what happened to his friend.

Letter from Nathaniel to Lothaire: Nathaniel wants to tell him about something horrible that happened to him, something that had a "fatal effect" on his life.

On October 13, a barometer salesman came to his room and Nathaniel kicked him out. To explain the importance of this, he flashes back to tell a story from his childhood, how when his mother would send the children to bed, she would tell them the Sandman was coming. Nathaniel would hear footsteps on the stair, fearing it was the Sandman. When he asked the old nanny, she told him the Sandman was a wicked man who throws sand in the eyes of children. The eyes bleed from their heads. He puts their eyes in a sack and takes them to the moon, and feeds them to his own children. These children have crooked beaks that pick out the eyes of misbehaving children (198).

This scares the bejesus out of poor Nathaniel, and though he is old enough to know better, the specter of the Sandman looms. He hears those footsteps. He once heard him violently force his way into his father's room. It preoccupies him: "his intercourse with my father began more and more to occupy my fancy."

When he was ten years old, his mother moved him to new bedroom down the hall from his father's room. Now that he is closer to encountering the Sandman (he hears more, he smells more), Nathaniel sneaks around, finally hiding in his father's room to await the appearance of the Sandman. It so turns out that the Sandman is actually Coppelius, a man who frequently dined with the family. Coppelius is described as a disgusting, offensive, repulsive figure. But his father treats Coppelius "as though he were a superior being, whose bad manners were to be tolerated and who was to be kept in good humor at any cost."

Quote the passage on page 200, where the father and Coppelius work at the fireplace.

As my old father stooped down to the fire, he looked quite another man. Some convulsive pain seemed to have distorted his mild features into a repulsive, diabolical countenance. He looked like Coppelius, whom I saw brandishing red-hot tongs, which he used to take glowing masses out of the thick smoke, which objects he afterwards hammered. I seemed to catch a glimpse of human faces lying around without any eyes -- but with deep holes instead. (200)

Coppelius seizes him, intends to burn his eyes. The father intercedes. Then Coppelius screws his hands and feet roughly. It is almost as if he is treating Nathaniel like a doll. Nathaniel faints. He regains consciousness and his mother is stooping over him.

Did any of this actually happen?

Coppelius disappears. A year later, he returns, ominously, and an explosion occurs in the father's room. His father is burned to death. Coppelius vanishes.

But this is the man who returns as the barometer salesman, freaking out Nathaniel.

Some questions for low-stakes writing and discussion:

What aspects of the story strike you as being particularly frightening, creepy, disturbing?

How does Freud define the uncanny? How does he use this concept to analyze "The Sandman"? Does Freud's interpretation make sense? Do you have a different interpretation?

Discuss Nathaniel's character. How much of his memories and experiences really happened, how much is in his imagination? On what evidence do your base your interpretation?

Discuss Clara's character. In what ways is she distinguished apart from Nathaniel? Explain her reaction to his poem. How is she trying to help him? Why does Nathaniel turn away from Clara and fall in love with Olympia?

Discuss the motif of "the double" in the story. Where do you see evidence of doubles? What might be significant about them? Use Freud's comments on doubles to help you out.

Discuss the motif of the automaton. Where do you see evidence of automata

Discuss the motif of "eyes" in the story. Highlight every mention of eyes, then analyze their significance. Compare to what Freud says about this aspect of the story.

Notes on Freud, "The Uncanny"

The Uncanny is related to what is scary. It arouses dread and horror. What distinguishes "the uncanny" from what is otherwise generally frightening?

"The uncanny is that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."

How does the familiar become frightening? That is what Freud wants to investigate

The German psychologist Jentsch thought that uncanniness resulted from intellectual uncertainty. Freud thinks this is incomplete.

Freud explores the etymology of the word unheimlich and its opposite heimlich. On the one hand, heimlich means that which is familiar and congenial, and on the other, that which is concealed and kept out of sight. "Unheimlich" is used as the contrary of the first definition but not the second. Everything is unheimlich which ought to have remained concealed but has come to light.

One manifestation of the uncanny can be found in the example of automata, where inanimate creatures are thought to be alive. Think wax figures or statues or robots or puppets or dolls. Epileptics strike us this way too, because their motions are involuntary and mechanical.

Freud begins his analysis of "The Sandman". The story certainly contains an automaton, namely Olympia; however, Freud is more interested in Nathaniel's childhood memories of the sandman Coppelius.

What is uncanny is the fear of being robbed of one's eyes. This fear occurs in children and continues into adulthood. It is associated with the dread of being castrated. Notice how Hoffman juxtaposes the anxiety about losing eyes against the father's death. Also notice how the Sandman always appears to disturb Nathaniel from love. The Sandman symbolizes the dreaded father who threatens to castrate the son.

Next Freud turns to the theme of "the double". The double for Otto Rank was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego. This starts in the primary narcissism of childhood. When the child grows up, the double takes a different guise. Instead of assuring immortality, the double foreshadows death. This double acts as an observer and critic of the ego, our conscience. "There are also all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will."

"The quality of uncanniness can only come from the circumstance of the 'double' being a creation dating back to a very early mental stage -- long since left behind, and one, no doubt, in which it wore a more friendly aspect. The 'double' has become a thing of terror, just as after the fall of their religion the gods took on demonic shapes."

There is a compulsion to repeat that goes back to our instinctual impulses. Whatever reminds us of this is perceived as uncanny.

Freud also talks about the uncanniness of the "evil eye". This relates to a principle of mind he calls the "omnipotence of thoughts", harking back to animism, spiritualism, magic powers. The uncanny triggers those primitive memories of animistic mental life within us.

The uncanny, psychoanalysis teaches, consists of the return of something familiar and old, now perceived as strange, because we have repressed it.

Notes on P.K. Dick's The Second Variety

These notes refer to Dick’s story as it appears in Heather Masri's textbook: Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.

Heather Masri in her headnote suggests we can read this in three ways:

1. Parable of the Cold War. How does the story reflect the ethos of its age (1950's)?

The cold war, which spanned the years 1945 to 1990, involved the two victorious superpowers from World War II, namely the USA and USSR, in an adversarial zero sum struggle for world domination. Each country had its economic, military and political sphere of influence -- for the USA that included most of the western hemisphere, Western Europe, the defeated Japanese empire, Israel, and other parts of post-colonial Asia and Africa; for the USSR this included the Eastern bloc countries behind the "iron curtain", communist China (technically China was an independent emerging third power, though allied ideologically with Russia), and various third world proxy nations such as Cuba, North Korea, North Vietnam, parts of Asia and Africa, the Middle East and Central America. The "war" was waged on several fronts, through diplomatic alliances, "hot" wars in third world nations (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Central America), propaganda, the space race, and the arms race. The Americans dropped the first nuclear weapons on Japanese territory (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), thus bringing an end to World War II. The Russians then developed their own nuclear weapons, and both nations (and others) tested nuclear weapons, first atomic, then hydrogen bombs. Nuclear power was weaponized by means of missile defense systems, intercontinental ballsistic missiles. A policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (acronym MAD) persisted for over thirty years. The idea was to amass so much firepower that any one nation could obliterate the other, or upon being attacked, respond in kind, thus annihilating all life as we know it on planet earth. Again, this was standard foreign policy for decades. During the Cuban Missile crisis in 1963, when JFK faced down Kruschev over the placing of missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the mainland United States, the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war. The Russians agreed to remove the missiles, while the United States secretly agreed to remove missiles from Turkey, which were within easy range of the USSR.

So that is the background context. "Second Variety" was written in the 1950's, when Americans were realizing the acute threat of apocalypse posed by nuclear weapons. In his story, the Russians and Americans have destroyed the better part of the planet, and the remaining soldiers inhabit a post-apocalyptic landscape of ash, dust, and radiation. There isn't much left to live for.

2. Crisis of faith in humankind's ability to control its technological creations (cite examples from our present age)

How does the story divulge this crisis? Through out of control killer robots. This expresses the fear that our technology risks getting out of hand and coming back to annihilate us. We are building machines to kill indiscriminately, and one gets the sense here that by the end of the tale, machines will indiscriminately kill other machines. The carnage is senseless, absurd.

We might think here of the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction, how logical it was and yet how insane to build guided missile systems capable of destroying life on earth as we know it. We made that possible. And the film Dr. Strangelove by Stanely Kubrick is a black comedy about how easily the end of the world could be triggered.

But I also think of smaller scale machines that can kill. Think of drone warfare, of flying machines that can be remote controlled from half a world away by humans sitting before telescreens with headsets and joysticks. There is something chilling about this. How one doesn't know the enemy any more. One cannot see his opponent.

3. Darkly ironic statement on human nature itself. Is Masri suggesting that we grapple with Dick's handling of themes such as trust and doubt, faithfulness, paranoia, empathy, gullibility?

How do the robots work so insidiously? By using our humane qualities of loyalty, compassion, attraction. The double-cross is liable to happen at every turn. One learns not to trust anyone, ever.

4. I would add a fourth dimension to the discussion, building on number three: how does Dick destabilize our sense of what is real? Is anything what it seems in this world? What makes this vision so nightmarish and how might we guard against it?

Teaching notes on Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven!"

Activity: Show the Ray Bradbury theater dramatization (available on YouTube). Also expose them to the comic book version. You can d iscuss the relationships between the adaptations.

Then get into a deeper analysis of the text. In particular, look at the rationales offered to explain the phenomenon of the uncanny familiarity of place.

A. Religious explanations

B. Scientific/rational explanations

Why are the crew members so easily duped by the Martians?

Discuss the quote (at the end of the story) about the power of imagination and memory vs. Violence.

How does the Captain finally figure out the real reason? He uses his imagination.

This may lead to a discussion about how the imagination and memory is a powerful source of feeling, how it can weaken your defenses. Historical and contemporary examples of this phenomenon abound. Can you imagine any instances where your memories and imagination has been manipulated in any way to get you to behave differently? [Could be a writing assignment]

Also discuss the reasons why the Martians might hate the Earthlings.

Finally, examine the end of the story, why do the Martians continue to adopt the guise of the humans, and why does this begin to fade away?

A Brief Intro to SciFi (notes)

Notes on “A Brief Introduction to Science Fiction and Its History,” from Heather Masri’s textbook Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts.

Science Fiction's roots run all the way down to our earliest myths and stories, but it doesn't emerge as a genre in literature until the 19th century, and it didn't flourish as a genre until the 20th century.

Think about it. You cannot have science fiction until you have something recognizable as modern science. So when did the intellectual era of modern science begin? Science is an outgrowth of the renaissance, which was expanding the reach of human inquiry and challenging Medieval assumptions about nature and reality that had held for hundreds of years. Think of people like Galileo and Francis Bacon. As you move into the 17th century, you see an epistemological shift happening. Instead of a faith-based reasoning (taking God and the bible and church doctrine as the starting point for knowledge), European thinkers founded their knowledge base on Observation (Perception) and Reason. This leads to new ways to explain reality, ways that can be confirmed through experimentation and acted upon through engineering and new technologies. Examples of early technologies would include the use of gun powder to make better instruments of destruction (rifles, cannons), moveable type and printing press (which ushered in a new era of mass media -- book printing and later the periodical press). Later would come innovations such as the steam engine, power looms, the harnessing of electricity, the telegraph, the light bulb, and all the rest.

The point is that scientific thinkers jettisoned the old ways and used their new knowledge methods to make amazing discoveries, and it was these discoveries that helped propel us into the modern age of industry and technology, with all its conveniences and radical transformations of daily life, for better or worse.

Science fiction is the fiction (imaginative storytelling in prose) that responds to these developments and speculates about them. A nice substitute term is speculative fiction.

Science fiction is very much a literature of ideas. It is concerned with where we are at and where we are headed. It sometimes predicts the future or imagines alternative histories. It sometimes reflects anxieties about the modern condition, sometimes celebrates the power of science and its hold on our imagination.

Science fiction used to be considered pulp fiction -- popular, escapist and fun, but not all that serious. Nowadays it has achieved mainstream status. Yes, it's still fun, but it is front and center in our culture.

Science fiction, along with postmodern fiction and magical realism and slipstream fiction, are all genres that veer away from traditional realistic storytelling, which was the dominant paradigm from the mid 19th through the present day.

Science fiction is literature that responds to change. The scientific revolution and the industrial revolution it fueled have brought about momentous changes to nature, society, and our sense of self. We might here indicate the range of those responses, or at least some lines of thought:

The prophetic vector: fiction that speculates on where science and technology are taking us into the future. What will that future be like? Where is all this human progress taking us? Some stories concern themselves with apocalyptic, disastrous futures. These reveal an anxiety about the uncontrollable consequences of science and engineering.

The values vector: SciFi often questions the values of its culture. What do we consider to be important as a society? Are we asking the right questions? Do we have all the right answers?

The utopian spectrum: SciFi sometimes entertains notions of what the ideal planned society would look like (utopia) and warns us of how utopias can turn into their opposite: dystopia (a nightmarish inversion of the ideal state).

The imaginary journeys: SciFi sometimes takes you to strange otherworldly places, where aliens are encountered. Invariably, these voyages teach us something about ourselves, our biases, prejudices, and potential for change.

The Gothic element: Gothic fiction is a subgenre that arose in the late 18th / early 19th century as part of the Romantic movement. It involves dark and creepy tales of haunted houses, ghosts, vampires, mystical and mysterious experiences, and the like. The Gothic can be seen as a repudiation of Scientific Reason, and our modern horror stories are the consequence. Often SciFi will borrow themes from Gothic and Horror fiction but it puts them within the context of a scientific setting. Frankenstein is probably the best case in point.

Major figures in early Science Fiction:

- Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (gothic, dark romanticism)

- Jules Verne (adventure stories, imaginary voyages)

- H.G. Wells (socially oriented, speculative fiction)

The Golden Age of SciFi (late 1930's through 1950's)

Astounding Science-Fiction magazine (John Campell was an influential editor)

Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and many other major authors fluourished in this period. (often these stories speculate on the virtues of science and technology)

The New Wave (1960's)

These writers were more critical and suspicious of the impact of science and technology on society and self. The writing style was more self-conscious and literary and sometimes satirical. It is as much if not more so concerned with society and politics than technology itself.

Women's Voices and Gender

In response to the Women's movement of the 60's and 70's, SciFi gets more interested in questions of gender, identity, sexuality, family, and the body.

Cyberpunk

These are near-future, high-tech, dystopic stories with a film-noirish flavor, hard-boiled, punky, and darkly disturbed and edgy style. Cyberpunk is responding to the rise of information society and the computer age.

Hard SciFi vs. Soft SciFi

Hard SciFi puts much more emphasis on the science and technology and revels in the mechanics and plausibility of its scenarios. SoftSciFi is more concerned with social, political and identity issues.

I think the point to finish with here is this: Science Fiction can certainly be escapist and adventuresome and fantastic in its speculations on the range of subjects it covers, but when you read it, you should always be aware that Science Fiction is really a reflection (or refraction) of the culture it comes from. So ask yourself, what is this telling us about who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed.

Notes on Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra"

These notes cover the Baudrillard excerpt appearing in Heather Masri’s textbook Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Page citations refer to that text.

"Baudrillard argues that in the world created by modern post-inudustrial capitalism, things have become detached from their meaning. Instead of the worth of an object being directly related to its usefulness, worth is attached to the image of the product. Accordingly, he suggests that we live in a world where artificial simulations are overtaking and indeed replacing reality, because we only interact with those things in the world whose images can be commodified and reproduced" (Masri 443).

The Divine Irreference of Images

Note the pun on "irreverence". Images do not refer. They do not exhibit divine correspondence to reality.

What is the difference between the terms "to dissimulate" and "to simulate"? Dissimulation means pretending not to have what you have. This implies an absence - I have something, but I make you think I really don't have it. The falseness is in the absence. Simulation means pretending to have what you don't have. This implies a presence - I don't have something, really, but I make you think I do have it. The falsity is in the presence.

According to Baudrillard, dissimulation "leaves the principle of reality in tact." What is the principle of reality, you might wonder. It is, firstly, that there is such a thing called reality, that it can be referred to, discussed, and represented, and that it can be distinguished from the artificial and imaginary.

Signs/symbols/images >>>> REFER TO >>>> SOME REALITY OUT THERE / IN THERE

So when I dissimulate, I pretend to not have something. Remember, it implies an absence. I don't have it. But I do have it. Actually, it exists in reality, but I am hiding the fact that I have it. So I mask the "truth". For dissimulation, think "mask" - covering the truth. The truth is behind it though.

When I simulate, something more sly happens. I am implying a presence. I make like I have something (but I don't, really). But in order to convince you that I have what I don't possess, I must produce 'symptoms', appearances, representations of the thing I do not really have. So it is not a matter of covering, masking, hiding the truth. I have to in effect copy the truth I don't have. But when I represent it, those representations or simulations assume a kind of presence or reality. This is what Baudrillard means when he says that "simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false." By making it seem like I have it, I'm clouding the true/false distinction.

To illustrate, he cites how people can simulate sickness by producing the symptoms of illness, how soldiers simulate insanity or homosexuality to be discharged from the field of battle. The homosexuality point is worth exploring in some detail. Let's say I am a soldier and I don't want to fight, and homosexuality is forbidden in the ranks. If I produce the symptoms of homosexuality, perhaps in cooperation with another soldier who also wants to get out of the army, all we have to do is perform a homosexual act and be seen doing it. We have simulated homosexuality. Does that mean we are homosexuals? Does it matter? The simulation is destabilizing the principle of reality (of truth).

Baudrillard then turns to religion and the "simulacrum of divinity" (444) and the question off iconography and iconoclasts. Can divinity be represented in an image? Traditionally, this idea has been resisted.. A religious icon [[show examples]] threatens to limit, dazzle, distract and fascinate with its visual machinery, and thus substitute the image (simulacra) for the "pure" concept of divinity. This is what iconoclasts feared so much, and why they went about destroying religious iconography.

Baudrillard thinks the iconoclasts were on to an important insight: that simulacra are capable of erasing God and destroying the truth that they simulate, and they imply the pernicious truth that deep down there is no God, only the images of God. So by destroying the images, you preserve the Idea of God.

On the other hand, the icon worshippers are most modern in their assumptions that God can be manifested in the simulacrum, thus making God disappear behind the representations of God but then hiding (dissimulating) the fact that there is nothing behind the image of God.

Images then have a murderous power. They annihilate the real, they kill the thing they model. But opposed to this way of thinking about images is the idea that images have a dialectical power, that the mediate reality, make it visible and intelligible. This leads us to consider the meaning of signification (making signs). To represent means to establish an equivalence between sign and the real. This sign = that reality.

It works like a contract. "A sign could refer to the depth of meaning, ...a sign could be exchanged for meaning," and God (as a ground for truth) could guarantee this exchange. But if God can be simulated too, then you don't know if the simulation is really referring to God or an absent God or no God, and then the entire system of signifying becomes unmoored and we float around in space, where nothing is real quite, nor is it quite unreal. Images exchange with other images in "an uninterrupted circuit" free of reference and unbounded.

From the standpoint of representation, to simulate means to represent falsely. That is, the simulacra is pretending to be something it isn't. The copy, the image, the clone. But from the standpoint of simulation, all representation is nothing but simulation. There is no getting outside the process of simulation.

Baudrillard describes the successive phases of the image:

1. Image as reflection of a profound reality (naive equivalence of representation with divine truth - image incarnates or animates the reality). The image is a good appearance. It represents the sacramental order. No simulation is really suspected, just signification.

2. Image then masks and denatures this reality (false representation - it doesn't or cannot represent truth - it pretends to equivalence). The image is an evil appearance - the order of maleficence. The awareness that images can lie, can be manipulated.

3. It masks the absence of a profound reality (it covers up the fact that the profound reality -- God / Truth / Reality -- doesn't exist). It plays at being an appearance (order of sorcery / magic). Image as illusion.

4. It bears no relation to reality at all (pure simulacrum). Leaves off the order of appearances and enters the order of simulation.

What is the decisive turning point in this succession of phases? When signs that mask the truth become signs that mask that there is no truth. There is no longer a God who can judge the false from the true, the real from the artificial.

With reality no longer as reliable as it used to be, NOSTALGIA assumes greater value. [[this paragraph is confusing]] (446)

Ramses, or the Rosy-Colored Resurrection

Baudrillard now brings in examples to illustrate his theory. He starts with an ethnological example: primitive members of the Tasaday tribe were returned to their "primitive" state in a virgin forest by the Philippine government.

When anthropologists study a primitive culture, they kill the thing they study. It's unavoidable. Instantly, the primitive culture begins to disintegrate on first contact.

So why did the ethnologists agree to "sacrifice" the object of their scientific study and "preserve" the Tasadays in the virgin forest where they couldn't be touched? For Baudrillard, their true intent was to preserve the reality principle. The preserved Indian in his virgin ghetto "becomes the model of simulation of all the possible Indians from before ethnology." It is the idea of primitivism that is being simulated. The idea that these natives have not been encountered. But these savages are already dead, sterilized, preserved in a frozen state as it were. They have become referential simulacra.

The same kind of thing happens with "living history" museums. One thinks of colonial Willilamsburg, say, or wildlife parks. What is going on with places like this? In Williamsburg (my example), we have the simulation of a colonial town. The 'residents' are in period costumes. Think "Ren Faire" too. Same idea. We pretend, mimic, but what are we simulating? Some actual experience? Real history? Or are we rather simulating other representations of Williamsburg, the Renaissance, the Serengeti Plain? What is being preserved in these reconstructions?

This anti-ethnology and how the museum is everywhere now. It is not circumscribed but an invisible presence of the simulacrum. "We are all Tasadays, Indians who have again become what they were -- simulacral Indians who at last proclaim the universal truth of ethnology." Baudrillard’s meaning is confusing and will take some time to tease out.

The confinement of the scientific object is equal to the confinement of the mad and the dead. Inverse mirror effect (this is also a difficult, confusing point. Insert higher intellect here...)

"As ethnology collapses in its classical institution, it survives in an antiethnology whose task it is to reinject the diference fiction, the Savage fiction everywhere, to conceal that it is this world, ours, which has become savage in its way, that is to say, which is devastated by difference and by death" (448).

Next example, the caves at Lascaux. On the pretext of saving the original, they blocked access and built an exact replica 500 meters away. "The duplication suffices to render both artificial" (448) How so??

Next example, the crumbling mummy of Ramses II. Scientists panicked because the mummy's decay threatened the principle that accumulation has meaning, that if we can't stockpile the past, it loses meaning and our acquisitive society collapses. We need a visible order, a visible past, visible myths of origin to reassure us about the end.

We are fascinated by Ramses just as Renaissance Christians were fascinated by the encounter with American Indians. They come from a past outside our own.

Demuseumification is "nothing but anothe spiral in artificiality" (449). Examples: the Cloisters in New York. Reinstituting appropriated museum pieces (buildings, statuary, etc.). Consider also the Elgian marbles in the British Museum. "Their reimportation is even more artificial: It is a total simulacrum that links up with 'reality' through a complete circumvolution. The cloister should have stayed in New York in its simulated environment, which at least fooled no one." You can't restore and pretend as if the thing is in its original state, as if nothing happened in the centuries since it was removed in the first place.

Another example: American pride at bringing the Indian population back to pre-Conquest levels. As if that erases all the atrocities!

"Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original -- things are doubled by their own scenario."

The Hyperreal and the Imaginary

What is the perfect model of the entangled orders of simulacra? Disneyland. It plays first of all in illusions and phantasms, the imaginary world.

Crowds are most attracted to "the social microcosm, the religious, miniaturized pleasure of real America, of its constraints and joys." (450) The crowds are tender, warm, made so and directed by multitudinous gadgets. The contrast to the "absolute solitude" of the parking lot is enormous. Disneyland simulates the profile of America, of the American individual in American society. It exalts American values. It embalms them. Pacifies them. This is the ideological analysis of Disneyland. It represents American ideology: our values and ideals. Baudrillard takes this even farther. Disneyland is an ideological blanket, covering for a third order simulation. It exists to hide the fact that it is the real country. It presents itself as imaginary and persuades us that the rest of life "out there" is real, whereas, out there nothing is real. All is hyperreal. (450) Disneyland is the prototype of toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization.

The End of the Panopticon

The ideology of lived experience is referred to in the TV experiment of the Loud family in 1971. The vérité experience is a frisson of the real more than a violation of privacy. "A frisson of vertiginnous and phony exactitutde, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency." "Pleasure in the microscopic simulation that allows the real to pass into the hyperreal."

The Louds were already hyperreal, a typical American family, statistically speaking. The camera lens pierces lived reality in order to put it to death. A sacrificial spectacle. "The liturgical drama of a mass society."

TV is the truth of the Louds. TV renders truth. Truth is no longer reflexive like a mirror. The manipulative truth of the test that sounds out and interrogates. The eye of TV is no longer the source off an absolute gaze. End of the panoptic system (we're always watching you, so behave) to a "system of deterrance, in which the distinction between the passive and the active is abolished. Such is the watershed of hyperreality, in which the real is confused with the model.

This is the final stage of the social relation in which persuasion (the realm of propaganda and ideology and publicity) has given way to deterance. You are always already on the other side of the model, the gaze. No more perspective. No more focal point. No more violence or surveillance, only "information". It is the abolishment of the spectacular. The confusion of the medium and message is "the first great formula" of this new era. The medium is so diffused and diffracted in the real, that nobody can say that medium is changed by it. I wonder what he'd say about the Internet.

We are all Louds because we are doomed not to violence and blackmail by the media but to media induction, innfiltratioon, illegible violence.

This however is not to be understood as a disease or innfection. The media is like a genetic code that "directs the mutation off the real into the hyperreal". So the media is the codemaker, the engine for this.

What has given way is reality and its attendant lords: causality, perspective, determinism, criticism, analysis, binary distinctions between cause/effect, end/means, active/passive. The media is not this external agent "out there" doing things to us. Now we must conceive us the media along the lines of DNA.

Nothing separates the poles anymore. They contract over each other. Where the polar distinctions cannot be maintained -- in politics, biology, psychology, media - that is where simulation begins and one enters an absolute manipulation.

Teaching poetry using Eagleton's How to Read a Poem (Chapter 2)

Some ideas for class activities if you are teaching Eagleton’s book How to Read a Poem, Chapter 2

Open with reading of the D.H. Lawrence poem "To Women, As Far As I’m Concerned" (discussed in Chapter 2) What makes this a poem?

Discuss Eagleton’s preliminary definition on page 25:

"A poem is a fictional, verbally inventive moral statement in which it is the author, rather than the printer or word processor, who decides where the lines should end."

Have groups discuss and explain the sections on

Poetry and Morality. How does he define morality? What does he mean by "moral purpose"? What is the difference between moral and empirical statements?

Poetry and Fiction. What is the distinction between fact and fiction? What does it mean to "fictionalise"? What is meant by "ambiguity"? How does he distinguish between imaginary and fictionalising? What is the danger in generalizing the meaning of a poem too much?

Poetry and Pragmatism. Are poems practical? Summarize the interpretations of "This is Just to Say". What is Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value, and how is that relevant to this discussion? Do poems have a sort of pragmatic function after all?

Poetic Language. What is meant by "verbally inventive"? Explain what he means by the "material being" of a poem, and by the statement "poets are the materialists of language". Why is "verbally inventive" a better descriptor than "verbally self-conscious"?

Terry Eagleton, How To Read a Poem, Notes on Chapter 1

Some sketchy notes on the first chapter of Terry Eagleton’s book How to Read a Poem.

1.1 The End of Criticism?

Hardly anybody practices literary criticism as close reading anymore. Why?

Eagleton wants us to treat poetry as discourse, as language attended to in all it density. The poem’s language is constitutive of its ideas. Form and content should not be divorced. Form does not just contain content like a wrapper around a candy. It shapes the content. The ideas are not the ideas they are without the form. We should read for the literariness of the work.

He illustrates his approach by launching into a multi page close reading of Auden’s "Musee des Beaux Arts" -- a real tour de force analysis, beginning in a summary, then analyzing style, grammar, stanza structure, tone, etc. He unpacks the poem and unwinds its strands, then elaborates on its theme of private suffer- ing and the indifference of the public to it. He questions the poem. He pushes back against it. He uses the analysis to think through the poem’s content. He is willing to elaborate and go off on tangents.

1.2 Politics and Rhetoric

There is something odd about a politically minded literary theorist calling us back to close reading. "There is a politics of form as well as a politics of content". Eagleton sees form as a way of accessing history. Form reflects historical developments in society and culture. He uses this section to survey the high points of literary criticism, the way critics have paid attention to "the grain and texture of literary works, and to those works’ cultural contexts."

Language is a bridge between Culture with a capital C (the realm of literature as Art) and culture (human society). Criticism is sensitive to the texture of the medium that makes us what we are. Attention must be paid.

Nietzsche, radical philosopher and expert philologist, knew the value of reading. He advocated slow reading. By reading slow, you are rebelling against the modern age (apparently there is a politics of criticism and a politics of reading too).

"To attend to the feel and form of works is to refuse to treat them in a purely instrumental way, and thus to refuse a world in which language is worn to a paper- like thinness by commerce and bureaucracy. The Nietzschean Superman is not an e-mail user."

So, what is the relationship between politics and the way we read literature? A historical survey is in order. From late antiquity through the Middle Ages, criticism was called Rhetoric, and it served both textual and political purposes. Rhetoric meant the study of verbal tropes and figures of speech, and the art of persuasion (primarily through public speaking). Rhetoric was the overarching term and within it was included disciplines like poetry and history. By studying rhetoric, you could learn how to practice rhetoric in your own public life. There was a close relationship between speaking well and thinking well. It was the purview of not only emperors but all educated citizens. In democratic Athens, a distinguishing feature of the free, civilized man was the capability of being persuaded by speech rather the threat of violence.

By the Middle Ages, the Roman empire had withered away and rhetoric was divorced from practical public life. It became more of an academic pursuit, something more to be studied than practiced.

With the Renaissance, rhetoric was revived for a time. It was used as a weapon against Medieval tradition and as a public tool in a time of political expansion. It gradually became reduced to matters of style and poetics, and lost much of its political dimension.

In the age of Scientific Rationalism, rhetoric became a kind of dirty word. Its flowery eloquence and figurative language smacked of "bombast, hot air, specious manipulation." (You might say B.S.). It wasn’t clear enough, direct enough, accurate enough for scientific taste. Rationalists and empiricist thought it to be so much embellishment, an elaborate distraction from factual truth.

Romanticism injected poetry back into the forefront. Enlightenment reason was pale and anemic. But poetry was pitted not alongside rhetoric. Rhetoric was still thought to be "deceitful, manipulative public discourse", but the better way to resist it was not rationality but authentic human feeling. Poetry was the product of individual inspiration, and it spoke a language very different from the public discourse of the marketplace, science lab, or political body.

Around this time, the notion of Literature gained currency. This new definition of literary meant writing that was more fiction than fact, a product of feeling, and it aimed at transcending the mundane reality of everyday life. Uniqueness was a virtue. It avoided abstractions and dealt in the specific, the individual experience. Although the tangible particulars were standards of Romantic poetics, Romanticism also aimed at universal truth, without shedding the unique. Its solution to this was found in the Romantic symbol, which finds a form for the universal truth in the particular form.

By getting down into the details more than mundane public discourse, while simultaneously aiming at higher universal insights than the mundane, Romanticism had two ways of avoiding actual humdrum history. This distance enabled it to engage with public discourse, however, and Romanticism offers a critique of modern industrial, instrumental culture.

In the Victorian period , the sense of imagination as political force, faded. Poetry became privatized. It was the novel that took up the mantle of engaging with the social.

The Modernist period sought to revive poetry as a vital genre. Modernist poetry, which is intensely private and isolated, in a way reflects the spirit of the modern age (alienated, anxious).

Nietzsche proposed that rhetoric should be studied not as persuasion but as tropes and figures, because these are the ’truest nature’ of language. In this sense, all language is rhetoric. All language, to one degree or another, is not reliable.

Post-structuralist theorists celebrated the fact that meaning never quite can be pinned down. All kinds of discourse are shot through with figurative speech. This undermines any claims to truth, meaning, and political action. Paradoxically, the post-structuralists assert that studying poetry reveals the truth that language is untrue.

Other lines of critical theory in the 1970s and 1980s set out to examine literature "as both patterns of meaning and historical events, places where power and signification converged". But as the millennium approached, and capitalism shook off all contending political challengers, political criticism has been withering away.

This leaves us in a crisis situation. Criticism is in danger of abdicating both of its traditional purposes. Critics are both less sensitive to literary form and less attendant on the social and political uses. It is in danger of "breaking faith" with classical rhetoric, Renaissance humanism, Victorian reformers, and Twentieth century cultural traditionalists.

1.3 The Death of Experience

What really is the culprit in our fading ability to be more sensitive readers of poetry is "the depthless, commodified, instantly legible world of advanced capitalism, with its unscrupulous way with signs, computerised communication and glossy packaging of experience."

Experience itself is threatened with extinction. "Astonishingly, what is in peril on our planet is not only the environment, the victims of disease and political oppression, and those rash enough to resist corporate power, but experience itself."

The Eternal Now of modern urban existence has eroded tradition.

We consume not objects or events, but experiences of of object and events. Experience is ready-made, pre-packaged, already interpreted. Like commodities, they are interchangeable.

The other side of the argument: post-structuralists thought the death of experience was something to be celebrated. It signaled the end of Man. The idea of Man as complete human subject, cultivating his feelings and thoughts and experiences like a museum curator, is historically anachronistic, something belonging to an earlier era of middle class (bourgeois) life. Consumer capitalism has over- come it. The inwardness of the bourgeois man was called Culture. It depended on the idea that a coherent, continuous human subject could develop himself, and he was the center of this private reality. One’s personal narrative is singular and uninterrupted, without contradiction. Everything fits in the story of one’s life.

It is this kind of coherent experience that underlies much modern criticism of poetry, the assumption that it is unified, harmonies, integrated. But language itself is a lot more slippery and unpredictable than that.

We need a dialectical viewpoint that weighs the pros and cons of modernity.

And yet, something has been surely lost. Poetry seeks to restore it. "In a world of instant legibility, we had lost the experience of language itself. And to lose our sense of language is to lose touch with a great deal more than language. The largely pragmatic uses to which we put our speech had staled its freshness and blunted its force; and poetry, among other things, could allow us to relish and savour it anew. Rather than simply allow us to consume the stuff, it forced us to wrestle with it; and this was especially true of modern poetry."

"Poetry is something which is done to us, not just said to us. The meaning of its words is closely bound up with the experience off them."

Another distinctive feature: poetry deals in the finer nuances of meaning and re- fined consciousness but it pursues this in the context of less rational , more subterranean dimensions of experience in hardness and actuality.

1.4 Imagination

Studying literature is often seen as a way to exercise and attune your imagination. This is a little too easy, says Eagleton. The imagination is not always a gentle, positive faculty. It can be dark and dangerous too. The modern idea of imagination emerged in England alongside the rise of selfish individualism. It we are isolated individuals, we need imagination to shoot the gap and allow me to empathize with you.

We need a stronger appeal to rationalize the study of literature.

Playwriting template

Creative writers should benefit from this free playwriting template in MS-WORD docx format, which follows traditional formatting rules for scripts.

The key to using the template is to use the Styles and Formatting features of Word. Each element in the script has its appropriate style. Tag those elements with the right style, and the spacing and indents are taken care of for you.

Feel free to share, refine and reuse.


Jul 4, 2014

Notes on Sure Thing by David Ives

This short, comic one act contains all the essentials you need for a successful play. Two main characters experience a host of problems (conflicts) associated with dating. You meet someone in a cafe. You're interested. What next? How many ways are there to f*ck it up? David Ives catalogs them all in Sure Thing. 

Even though it is a short play with a minimal cast and setting, it still works on an audience because the audience can relate to the foibles being portrayed. The actors on the stage crystallize experience, put it on display, reveal it to the crowd. 

What themes are important to this play? The emergence of romance, of the possibilities of romance (and impossibilities), and the way language can be used to dance in and out of these possibilities. 

One question to ask of this comedy: are the characters consistent? It seems as if they are quite willing to adapt their language for the sake of continuing the faltering relationship, yet they are consistent in that very commitment to find a way to work out a common protocol between them. It's interesting how that connection is first established at the level of language, and thereafter (one assumes) it will be consummated in more tangible ways.
Because it is a ten minute play, it is ridiculously easy to do script in hand readings in the classroom, and great fun, I might add. 


Jun 24, 2014

Notes on The Zebra Storyteller

Spencer Holst’s “The Zebra Storyteller” was in an anthology I taught years and years ago. It’s a super short flash. I quote it here:

Once upon a time there was a Siamese cat who pretended to be a lion and spoke inappropriate Zebraic.
That language is whinnied by the race of striped horses in Africa.
Here now: An innocent zebra is walking in a jungle, and approaching from another direction is the little cat; they meet.
“Hello there!” says the Siamese cat in perfectly pronounced Zebraic. “It certainly is a pleasant day, isn’t it? The sun is shining, the birds are singing, isn’t the world a lovely place to live today!”
The zebra is so astonished at hearing a Siamese cat speaking like a zebra, why, he’s just fit to be tied.
So the little cat quickly ties him up, kills him, and drags the better parts of the carcass back to his den.
The cat successfully hunted zebras many months in this manner, dining on filet mignon of zebra every night, and from the better hides he made bow neckties and wide belts after the fashion of the decadent princes of the Old Siamese court.
He began boasting to his friends he was a lion, and he gave them as proof the fact that he hunted zebras.
The delicate noses of the zebras told them there was really no lion in the neighborhood. The zebra deaths caused many to avoid the region. Superstitious, they decided the woods were haunted by the ghost of a lion.
One day the storyteller of the zebras was ambling, and through his mind ran plots for stories to amuse the other zebras, when suddenly his eyes brightened, and he said, “That’s it! I’ll tell a story about a Siamese cat who learns to speak our language! What an idea! That’ll make ’em laugh!”
Just then the Siamese cat appeared before him, and said, “Hello there! Pleasant day today, isn’t it!”
The zebra storyteller wasn’t fit to be tied at hearing a cat speaking his language, because he’d been thinking about that very thing.
He took a good look at the cat, and he didn’t know why, but there was something about his looks he didn’t like, so he kicked him with a hoof and killed him.
That is the function of the storyteller.

It’s the kind of story that might be good to start a semester with. A good “first day of class” piece. It begins in a most conventional manner: "once upon a time”. If you're attentive to how the story is told, you'll notice that it's told in the form of a fable: a brief allegorical narrative illustrating a moral lesson or satirizing human beings. The characters of a fable are usually animals who talk and act like people while retaining their animal traits. The oldest known fables are those in the Panchatantra, a collection of fables in Sanskrit, and those attributed to the Greek Aesop, perhaps the most famous of all fabulists. Other important writers of fables include Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables are noted for their sophistication and wit, the Russian poet Ivan Krylov, and the German dramatist and critic Gotthold Lessing, who also wrote a critical essay on the fable. In England the tradition of the fable was continued in the 17th and 18th cent. by John Dryden and John Gay. The use of the fable in the 20th cent. can be seen in James Thurber's Fables for Our Time (1940) and in George Orwell's political allegory, Animal Farm (1945). The American poet Marianne Moore wrote poems quite similar to fables in their use of animals and animal traits to comment on human experience; she also published an excellent translation of The Fables of La Fontaine (1954).
As an attentive reader of fable, you should be looking to see what moral message is being conveyed. What is the story trying to teach me? In this particular fable, despite the conventional story telling mode, the story itself is a bit strange. We're not sure where this writer is leading us, until we get to the end, and even then, we need to think through the implications of that last sentence.
Before we get to that, let's discuss the textual situation first. We have three primary characters in this fable:
The Siamese Cat: The cat who pretends to be a lion and is able to speak Zebraic, the language of the zebras. The cat perpetuates a double pronged fraud. First he uses his command of Zebraic to astonish his prey, who can't believe that a cat could speak their language. Once he's flabbergasted them, he takes advantage of them by preying on them, eating them, just as a lion would do. The cat brags to his friends, reasoning that his ability to hunt zebra makes him a lion. What does this tell you about the cat's character? For one, he's inauthentic, dishonest with the zebras, with his friends, even to himself. He's not content being who he is, is he?
Zebras: I take the Zebra society as one collective character, because with the exception of the storyteller, they all act the same. They behave en masse, as a herd. What are some of their qualities? They're ignorant, they're superstitious, they're unaware, they are not awake to reality, even when then can smell it in the air. They're easily duped. They're creatures of habit. Because they think and act this way, they use faulty logic to explain the problem posed by the cat. What's their conclusion? The ghost of a lion is haunting them, terrorizing their community.
The Storyteller: The hero of our story. What's he like? He has an imagination. He's able to conceive things that are out of the ordinary, unexpected, unanticipated. Initially why does he do this? To invent something silly and interesting that will entertain the other zebras. After all, that's what storytellers do. They provide pleasure. At the time he does this, he has no idea that what he's thinking up could actually come true, or that it will be useful knowledge.
The plot of the story reaches its crisis point when the cat encounters the storyteller. The storyteller reacts differently from the herd. He's not surprised when the cat speaks to him in Zebraic. He's already imagined such a thing in his mind. Because he's not shocked, he's not tricked either, and he is able to detect something the others can't see: the cat's duplicity, phoniness, pretentiousness. He even senses danger and impulsively kills the cat. His imagination has proved most useful to the herd, most practical.
Like any traditional fable, this story has its moral. The last line of the story cues you into it: that the function or purpose of a storyteller is to envision the unexpected, to imagine what could be, not what necessarily what is right now, and to recognize that what can be imagined can become real. The storyteller is not a sorcerer, he doesn't deal in superstition and mystery and false belief. He's an entertainer, and a bit of a wiseman too.
There's an irony at play in this story worth pondering: sometimes when an artist imagines something that isn't true and seemingly worthless, it can arrive at the most practical truths.

Teaching "No One's a Mystery"

For years off an on I have taught Elizabeth Tallent’s flash fiction “No One's a Mystery”, often as a first reading in Intro to Literature.

Here are some possible approaches to teaching it.

Exposition. Examine the first paragraph in detail. What can you learn about this story's situation? How does your perception expand as the story proceeds?

Economy of Expression and Description. Because short stories are condensed narratives, writers must use economy of expression to say or suggest a lot in a few words. As readers, we need to be aware of this and crack open the nut to get the goodies inside. For example, there's a gift given in this story: the five year diary. That object takes on a significance, does it not? Notice the description of the lock on the diary: "it didn't seem to want to work." You can read that quickly and take it literally for what it is, a cheap lock on the diary. But you can also take it metaphorically. You can connect it to a larger theme running through the story: just what does the future hold for this relationship? Judging by the quality of the lock on the diary that will record that history, it doesn't look good.

Revelation of character through words, appearance, and deeds. Notice how the writer reveals Jack's character. She does it through his dialogue (what he says and how he says it) and through description of his dress, his truck, his actions.

Intertextuality. Compare the Rosanne Cash song "No One's a Mystery" (written by John Hiatt) - another detail that tells you something about Jack's character, about his attitude towards people. The way to formulate a character analysis is to assemble all the details the story gives you and look for patterns or tendencies. I think you can find that with the character of Jack.

How much plot do you need for a short story? As far as the plot of this story, not a lot happens. We have the complication of the wife approaching from the other direction, the tension of the girl having to hide inside the truck, but after that passes, there's not much else that happens except for a conversation between the narrator and Jack. In this discussion they exchange possible futures -- what will their relationship be like in one, two, three, four, five years? If there's a central conflict in the story, it is the conflict between their visions for the future. Jack's vision is realistic, even pessimistic, which is consistent with his character. The narrator's vision is idealistic: they're in love, they'll stay in love, he'll divorce the wife, they'll get married, have kids, her baby's breath will smell like vanilla, etc.

Reader response. What is your emotional response to these characters? What do you think of them as people? Which of the possible futures do you think will occur? The answer to that question inevitably involves you as the reader, your imagination. Based on the evidence the story provides, you can make an educated guess. Doesn't your answer have something to do with your own philosophy: idealism vs. realism?

By exploring this very short fiction in depth, you can model any number of approaches to literary analysis and interpretation. It’s a great piece and fun to teach.

Happy Endings by Margaret Atwood - some comments and teaching notes

This story explores as its theme plot: beginnings, endings, and what happens in between. Plot is the scaffolding of the storytelling art. One of the questions raised by this strange story is ‘what makes a story interesting?’ What do we mean by beginnings and endings? Does an interesting story depend on a happy ending? Is a happy ending realistic? Is it true? Is there a difference between endings in real life and endings in stories? “Happy Endings” isn’t really the kind of story we recognize as a story, at least not in a traditional sense. It’s a story about storytelling, about the art of fiction -- a metafiction. Fiction that is in part about the nature of fiction itself. Metafiction such as this is experimental, it takes chances, it makes things odd.

The story starts out familiarly, perhaps too familiarly with “John and Mary meet.” John and Mary are stock characters. After that inauspicious beginning, we are presented six options for continuing and completing the rest of the story. In fact, the story reads like an advice column for aspiring writers learning their craft. A “paint by numbers” approach to writing.

Option A: “the happy ending” version. What’s notable about this version? It’s so predictable. Very little unexpected happens. There’s no conflict to speak of. No twists. No drama. It’s safe. The kind of outcome we might expect in real life.

Option B: More complications get added to the plot. The love affair isn’t equal. Interest gets added by describing John and Mary’s character through their actions (how they behave toward each other). It’s a pathetic, dysfunctional relationship. One-sided too. Complications accumulate. Mary gets run down, John complains, he’s seen in a restaurant with another woman (the crisis), Mary OD’s and dies, and an anti-climactic conclusion, returning to “A.”

Option C: A different scenario, a variation, an older man/younger woman affair with a triangle: James the 22 year old motorcycle man. Version C borrows plot elements from A and B. Plot reaches crisis when James and Mary get high and in bed, then John happens in on them -- falling action when he kills them and himself.

D: Another different plot, more of an adventure story, a survival tale with an unrealistic hero and heroine. Larger than life. They’re “virtuous and lucky.”

E: Takes the same characters and builds a different plot, a sentimental and not terribly interesting one. We’re starting to get the sense that it doesn’t make much different what the plot is, the ending’s always going to be the same.

F: Going for the suspense/intrigue/thriller plot, w/ a satiric jab at Canadian society (boring, stable).

Atwood cautions us to beware of fakery, excessive optimiism and downright sentimentality. The “only” authentic ending (in life) is that you die. For Atwood’s narrator, endings are not what matter. The endings cancel out. “Beginnings are always more fun.” The middle is really where the interest lies. Ultimately, for this narrator, plots are matter of fact. She urges us to move beyond to “how and why.” Part of this experimental fiction’s purpose might be to show you how plots can evolve and grow and branch in various directions -- and yet maybe they end all too similarly after all. Complications add interest, drama, and tension to the plot -- that’s where the differences lie.

Writing prompt: which ending do you prefer and why?

Creative writing prompt: write your own plot, modeled after Atwood’s approach in this story.

Jan 21, 2014

Cultural allusions in The Fall of the House of Usher

Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is peppered with allusions to cultural artefacts: music, art, and books that contribute to the setting of the story. Here's a quick list of those references.

Last Waltz of Von Weber, composed by Karl Gottlieb Reissiger (1798-1859)

Henry Fuseli (1742-1825). Swiss-born Romantic period artist,  known for his nightmarish paintings. The narrator contrasts Roderick Usher's paintings to Fuseli's work.

"The Haunted Palace" is a poem by Poe, originally published in 1839. Poe quotes it in the story, now represented as one of Usher's "wild fantasias".

The books in Usher's library:

Ververt et Chartreuse by Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset
The Belphegor by Machiavelli (Belfagor arcidiavolo)
The Heaven and Hell by Swedenborg
The Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg
The Chiromancy of Robert Flud by Jean D'Indagie
The Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck by De La Chambre
City of the Sun by Campanella
The Directorium Inquisitoram by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne
Passages in Pomponius Mela about African Satyre and AEgipans
The Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae (Usher's "chief delight")

Later in the story, the narrator picks up a copy of "Mad Trist" of Sir Launcelot Canning (this book, unlike the ones above, is a fabrication by Poe).


Jan 1, 2014

Syntopical guide to The Killers by Ernest Hemingwa...

The Great Books: Syntopical guide to The Killers by Ernest Hemingway
If you're interested in cross-references to works related to this great little story by Hemingway, check out the link. It also associates the story to "great ideas" in the Great Books of the Western World Syntopicon. This might be useful for teachers in the composition of thematic writing assignments.