How Far We’ve Come!

Well, it’s a pretty bleak ending to the semester.  I mean, pretty much all the stuff we’ve read for Modernism has been bleak.  The Joyce short stories.  “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  The chaos of “The Waste Land.”  Alienation in To the Lighthouse.  But Endgame feels worse.  Beckett takes things a step further than the Modernists; they posed questions, and he gives an answer.  The Modernists were responding to industrialization, to the horrors of war, to all these sudden breaks in the established order; they were asking questions, doubting old certainties, wondering where to find meaning, struggling to cope with the chaos.  There is a sense of uncertainty, and often anxiety and stress.  If the Modernists’ writing can be characterized as an anguished cry—“Is there meaning?  Is there hope?”—then Beckett’s writing is a hollow laugh—“No, of course not.”  Actually, similar dialogue takes place in Endgame:

HAMM. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?

CLOV. Mean something!  You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!

Wilfred Owen denounces patriotism and honor in the modern world, refers to it spitefully, bitterly as “the old lie.”  Like he’s upset, mad, confused.  The characters in Endgame denounce honor too, but they just laugh at it.  Cynical, emotionless, not upset.

NAGG. You swear?

HAMM. Yes.

NAGG. On what?

HAMM. My honor. [Pause.  They laugh heartily.] (2600)

            Endgame has a sense of resigned hopelessness and cynicism.  They say things like, “To hell with the universe” (2598) and “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that” (2601).  It is grating to read or watch—uncomfortable, awkward, pitiful, sad.  The characters are shadows of men—weak, purposeless.  Of course, it’s not all resigned hopelessness and cynicism; there is some sense of weariness in the repeated question, “Why this farce, day after day?” (2585), and there is a small hope in Hamm’s wish to think that “perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing” (2593).  But that hope is quickly extinguished, and you just have to embrace the farce of life.  Human life is an absurd paradox.  We search for meaning in a universe that offers no meaning.

And to think—we started the semester so sure and secure and happy and clear!  I mean, sure, whatever, compare Beckett to the Modernists—but then think back to Robinson Crusoe.  Like, how long ago was that??  He was just puttering around, organizing stuff, all Enlightenment idealistic, talking about how great man is, how much better than the animals because he has thumbs and can make tools, and how he’s conquered nature and everything.  How awesome do we think humans are now?  And technology?  What a joke.  Idiot Robinson Crusoe.  C’mon man.

Slavish Master in “Shooting an Elephant”

In one of my other classes, we read “The Handbook” by Epictetus, who was a Greek slave and a Stoic philosopher in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD.  Stoics’ big thing is duty.  The key to happiness, they say, is realizing what’s up to you and what isn’t.  The only thing that’s up to you is your free choice in accord with nature.  Your free will—nobody can take that from you.  They believe in providence—a universe that has order.  You can’t control how other people respond to what you do, you can’t control other events in your life, and you shouldn’t try to; all you have control over is your own free choice.  You just do your duty.  You don’t decide which part you get in the play of life, but you do have control over how well you play that part.  So anybody can be happy—not just the wealthy or the powerful—even slaves can be happy if they accept their place and do their duty.  That’s the basic idea.  In his book, Epictetus gives the example of a master who is constantly anxious about his slaves—whether or not they’ve obeyed him, did they make a careless mistake, etc.  He writes:

And it is better for your slave-boy to be bad than for you to be unhappy. Begin, therefore, with the little things. Your paltry oil gets spilled, your miserable wine stolen; say to yourself, “This is the price paid for a calm spirit, this the price for peace of mind.” Nothing is got without a price. And when you call your slave-boy, bear in mind that it is possible he may not heed you, and again, that even if he does heed, he may not do what you want done. But he is not in so happy a condition that your peace of mind depends upon him.

If a master is so stressed out about the behavior of his slaves, if his peace of mind rests upon them performing rightly, then in fact, he has become enslaved to them.  He’s trying to control something he can’t control, and has thus become a slavish master.  His slaves might be more “free” than he is, if they have a right understanding of what they have control over.  If they just focus on doing their duty and don’t worry about the rest.

Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read this part in “Shooting an Elephant:”

I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.  I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.  He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.  For it is the coordination of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every criss he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

The narrator, and perhaps the empire itself, is a slavish master.  He seems to be the one with the power, with control over the situation, but in fact he is enslaved to the people over which he rules.  Enslaved to their expectations.  His peace of mind depends on them.  He doesn’t want to be laughed at.  He has to perform how they expect him to.  He isn’t really free.  I mean, it’s all just kind of high school cafeteria stuff.  Everybody’s concerned with what people think of them.  Nobody wants to be laughed at.  People want to be respected and taken seriously.  We don’t always do what we really think is the right thing to do because we decide to do what the crowd expects or wants us to do.

I don’t know if this Stoic reading of the short story really makes all that much sense.  I guess Stoics would argue against the whole premise—against empire-building.  One should accept the role that providence gives him or her and do one’s duty in that role, and not go seeking to gain more power for oneself.  And the narrator was technically following procedure—doing his duty.  But he wasn’t doing what he thought was right.  He was just swayed by the crowd.  And in that scene shows “the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.”

Times Passes

Yeah, “Time Passes” is a pretty weird section, a pretty stark contrast to “The Window.”  “The Window” takes 120 pages (in our edition) to tell us about the goings-on of one evening—3 or 4 hours pass, maybe.  “Time Passes” takes about 20 pages and spans 10 years.  In “The Window” there is lots of introspection and little action; we are constantly in characters’ heads, being made privy to layer upon layer of convoluted thought processes and distinct perspectives.  In “Time Passes” those same characters who we’ve come to know so intimately are abruptly, casually ripped away; they are literally a parenthetical thought, an aside—like “Oh, and I forgot to mention…”  Because what’s really important is that we focus on our attention on the house.  The building itself.  That’s what “Time Passes” is all about; we watch the house fall apart and decay and rot, and the maid thinks surely the Ramseys will never come back, and they couldn’t honestly expect her to keep up that whole big house by herself anyway, but then they are coming back, and she gets some help from her friend and her son and they clean up the house for the return of Lily and Mr. Carmichael and someone named Mrs. Beckwith (we don’t know who she is yet, right?).  So there’s not a ton of action in this section either.  There’s definitely just as much philosophical thought as there was in the first section.  It’s really a pretty interesting section.  Just a really innovative way of moving the story along; can’t think of anything I’ve read that has done something like that.  Certain parts are really beautiful.  The whole thing’s got kind of an eerie feel to it.  And it’s not insignificant to focus on the house, and on its decay!  I don’t mean to write about it in such a tone as if to say that I think it seems silly or unimportant.  Woolf (obviously) knew what she was doing.  Tara already talked about how effective it is to make the characters’ deaths so abrupt and how that reflects what it’s like living during war time and how common death becomes and how desensitized one can become towards those horrors.  So I think it’s appropriate to turn readers’ attention away from the characters and towards the house, which serves as a really powerful symbol, a poignant image.

There are all these questions repeated throughout: “When would it fall?” (126) “whether they would fade” (126) “How long would they endure?” (126) “Will you fade?” (129) “Will you perish?” (129) “How long shall it endure?” (131).  And we watch throughout the passage the house get worse and worse—we see boundaries crossed, sacred things defiled.  The “airs,” when they first enter the house as night falls, are initially barred from entering the bedrooms: “But here surely, they must cease.  Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast.  […] here you can neither touch nor destroy” (126).  And loveliness and stillness, they clasp hands in the bedroom, and say to each other, “We remain,” and “Nothing it seemed could break that image, corrupt that innocence” (129).  But of course the image is broken, and the innocence is corrupted, and by page 138, “Nothing now withstood [the airs]; nothing said no to them.”  So even those bedrooms we thought to be so sacred and incorruptible are now rotting, and Mrs. Ramsey’s shawl, having been loosened, now flaps in the wind, and the pig skull on which it hangs is exposed (which is a pretty creepy image).  And the maid laments, because surely the Ramseys would expect “to find things just as they had left them” (136).  But no; everything has changed.  Everything has fallen apart.  World War I has changed everything.  And the passage talks about dreamers down on the beach staring at the sea, searching for answer to their questions, demanding to know the meaning of all this suffering and horror, trying to find stability, wanting to believe that “good triumphs, happiness prevails, order rules” (132).  We hear about “incorrigible hope” (131) and we hear that “dreams persisted” (132), and yet we have to imagine that those dreams were eventually tossed aside, and that that hope was corroded just like everything else.  Because the sea tosses like Leviathans playing an idiot game (symbolizing the destruction and meaninglessness of war), and Nature is cold and indifferent and unstoppable, and because God offers only a brief glimpse behind the curtain—and what we do see, “it seems impossible […] that we should ever compose from their fragments a perfect whole” (128).  Just like Eliot!  Fragmentation.  How we gonna put the pieces back together?  And yet the house gets cleaned up, and people try to carry on with their lives, and well, maybe we can convince ourselves that “it all looked […] much as it used to look” (142).

Frag men ta tion (<– get it?)

Let’s talk about fragmentation.  The first modern fragmentation grenade was invented in 1915 by a British man named William Mill.   They were called Mills Bombs and were used frequently by the British army during WWI.  The soldiers were instructed to throw the grenades as if they were “bowling” (a move performed in the game of Cricket).  I thought that was interesting, in light of that propaganda poster we looked at in class on Tuesday that said that the Army isn’t all work and had people playing sports.  Throwing a grenade’s just like throwing a cricket ball!  This is a great adventure!  It’s fun!  (citation: http://www.firstworldwar.com/weaponry/grenades.htm)

I thought what Tara said about war literature often being told in a fragmented way was a good point.  I haven’t read The Things They Carried, but I have read Slaughter House Five, which is based on Vonnegut’s experiences fighting in WWII—in particular the Dresden Fire Bombing.  The protagonist Billy Pilgrim has come “unstuck in time” so the story is told in this non linear, fragmented format as Billy time travels randomly to different parts of his life.  That idea of being “unstuck in time” is I think a sort of commentary on modern society: Like Billy, we’ve lost our bearings, we’re wandering, aimless, confused, lost, unsure of our place in history.

What else gets fragmented in WWI?  Bodies get fragmented, blown apart and disfigured.  Families are fragmented; fathers, sons, brothers gone.  The ground is fragmented, torn up, scarred by trenches.  Souls are fragmented; there is trauma and stress and horror—hence shell shock.  Society is fragmented; people are disillusioned and hopeless, and feel alienated from one another (especially those with shell shock trying to readjust to normal life).  “Things fall apart” says Yeats.  They can’t be put back together, either.  You can’t unsee the horrors.  You can’t undo the deeds.  Billy at one point in Slaughter House Five watched a movie about WWII, but watches it backwards.  It’s too good; I’m going to post the whole quote:

“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again. The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby.”

As if to say: You can never go back.  You can never go back to the innocence of being in high school.  These fragments can’t be put back together.

Well I’ve talked a lot about fragmentation, and zero about The Waste Land.  Early on in the poem, Eliot writes, “You know only/ A heap of broken images.”  That is modern life.  Broken images.  No sovereignty of God, no overarching, guiding plan or trajectory of society, no progress, no clear connection between one event and another—just a pile of broken images.  And that’s also what Eliot gives us in the poem: really disturbing, often paradoxical images that are cobbled precariously together, seemingly without any meaning or guiding hand.  It’s disconcerting—makes you feel like you’re losing your mind.  There’s the flash to this scene of childhood innocence right near the beginning—sledding with your cousin—then there’s vegetation trying to grow from a stony field, and there’s dead trees, and dry bones, and an unreal city full of specters, ghosts walking over London Bridge, and an old war buddy shouting at you about the ships at Mylae, which is a battle that took place during the Punic War between Rome and Carthage, back when people were patriotic, and he asks you if the corpse in your garden has bloomed yet—that is, has life sprouted from death, was the sacrifice worth it?  And later, there’s the mountains—rocks and water, where is the water? aren’t you thirsty? and it’s burning burning burning burning where is water? will God pluck us out of the fire or will we be consumed?; and there’s all these primal, meaningless sounds “co co rico,” “drip drop,” “weialala,” “DA,” “jug jug” and a little girl singing “London bridge is falling down” and then the repeated mechanical voice HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME and what exactly is it time for? “What shall we do tomorrow?” she asks—that is, where do we go from here?  And “Do you remember nothing?”  Are you dead or alive?  “Why do you never speak?”  Alienation.  And there’s all these quotes from classics of Western literature, as if Eliot is searching for meaning in the past, trying to find some wisdom, some explanation—looking for bearings in the middle of the chaos.  And then the poem ends with the thunder of judgment, as if God is going to judge the world, as if it’s the 2nd Coming like Yeats says, and there’s this mantra from eastern mysticism talking about inner peace, and it’s over.  It’s a really chaotic, fragmented, unsettling poem.  Reflects the mindset of the time.  Uncertainty, anxiety.

C.S. Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, and Wilfred Owen: Three Veterans’ Perspectives on World War 1, Modernity, and Loss of Value

C.S. Lewis fought in World War I.  Doubtless, he too was exposed to the horrors of that time.  Some twenty years later, right smack in the middle of World War II (his timing was not by accident), he gave a series of lectures that eventually became the book The Abolition of ManThe Abolition of Man deals with the loss of a standard of objective value in modern times.  In one example about patriotism, he writes, “When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said.  He was communicating to the son an emotion which he himself shared and which he believed to be in accord with the value which his judgment discerned in noble death.  He was giving the boy the best he had, giving of his spirit to humanize him as he had given of his body to beget him” (22).  In this quote, Lewis is alluding to the Roman poet Horace, who wrote, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which means, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”  According to Lewis, fathers in the past taught their sons how to discern value—in this example, the value in a love of one’s country.  Today, however, we have philosophically destroyed the concept of a standard of objective value—that is, we say that values are relative to individuals—yet we still demand that our sons value their country enough to die for it.  We no longer educate our children in such a way as to teach them what is proper to value—that they ought to work hard, that they ought to love their country, etc.—and yet we still expect them to be patriotic and willing to sacrifice for their country.  Lewis says it’s like castrating a horse and then bidding it be fruitful.  You cut out the foundation, the philosophical basis, the motivation for performing certain actions, but then still expect people to perform the actions without that foundation.

Wilfred Owen also fought in World War I.  In his poetry, he describes graphically the horrors of the time.  Throughout the war, he too had in mind Horace’s line about dying for one’s country.  And he despised it.  In his poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” he calls it the “old lie.”  This poem recounts the death of a soldier in a gas attack, an experience that haunts the poem’s narrator.  Here’s the end of the poem:

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Having witnessed the atrocities that humans are capable of, how can we still hope in societal progress?  Having seen the new level of horror that technology brings to warfare, how can we continue to celebrate that culture and to send our sons off to the battlefield?  Things are too awful now for there to be any glory or pride in military triumph, like there was in the time of the Roman Empire.  

Ernest Hemingway was an ambulance driver in WWI, and wrote A Farewell to Arms based on that experience.  The main character Henry expresses similar sentiments to those of Owen: “I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it.  […]  Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us sometimes, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one” (Hemingway 184-185).  Henry is no patriot.  Patriotism, in such a time as World War I, seems grotesque and meaningless and outdated.  Sacrifice is not honorable; it is absurd.  Men are butchered systematically, en masse like cows.  War is more gruesome than it was in the past.  Soldiers do not march proudly off with honor and glory.  Rather, as Owen writes, soldiers are, “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, knock-kneed, coughing like hags.”

All three veterans express in their writing the crippling effect the world wars had on society.

Araby and In a Station at the Metro

Well, this blog post is the worst because your area of specialty is James Joyce so it’s a little intimidating trying to write anything intelligent or fresh or worthwhile about his writing style having only read two short stories.

But anyway, Ezra’s talking about what I guess is this pretty recent technological innovation—underground electric railways—which I imagine was probably even more shocking a development than the steam engine.  I mean, trains in the open air are one thing, but put ’em underground and they’re doubly scary, right?  Anyway, so he calls what he’s seeing an apparition, which means it’s got this ghost-like quality to it, or maybe it’s literally a ghost.  And yeah, it’s kind of a ghostly, creepy scene.  You’re underground, and it’s really crowded, and everybody’s standing around just waiting, and it’s probably damp and cold, and the lighting’s probably bad, so people’s faces maybe have this pale unearthly glow, and after all they’re working in factories and traveling underground so they probably start to look pale and sickly and overworked and just in bad shape—inhuman.  And everybody’s there together, but there’s no sort of spirit of community or any bonds that are shared, but rather just isolation and alienation.  Anyway, then he compares their faces to petals on a black, wet tree branch.  Which makes sense.  These people are delicate and fragile and precious and have a strange sad beauty (the petals having been separated from the flower—broken, incomplete, but still pretty) and could be blown away at any moment.

So Ezra paints what to me seems to just be a real bleak snapshot picture of life in the modern industrial world.  “Araby” too comments on some aspects of modern life.  Joyce mentions that the field where the kids used to play became the site for some new and improved building project.  Joyce includes a crowded train station in his story.  “Araby” too is pretty bleak.  It depicts this kid’s loss of innocence—how he goes from playing stupid games in the street with his pals to falling in love with his buddy’s sister to realizing by the end kind of how powerless he is.  All he’s been dreaming about for weeks—buying his crush a present from the Bazaar—all his dreams are just kind of dashed against the rocks.  His uncle forgets to come home early, so he’s late to the fair and most of the stalls are shut down, and the shopkeeper at the stall that is open doesn’t take him seriously, and he doesn’t have enough money to buy anything.  He realizes he’s just a kid, and that dreams get shattered, and that he’s alone, and that it’s a tough world, and all that stuff.  “Araby” too uses a lot of poetic language.  There’s some really beautiful lines, and I compiled some that seemed most notable:

“The space of sky above us was the colour of ever-changing violet and towards it the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns.  The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.”

“But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.”

“The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

“I had never spoken to her, except for a few casual words, and yet her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.”

“Through one of the broken panes I heard the rain impinge upon the earth, the fine incessant needles of water playing in the sodden beds.”

“The air was pitilessly raw and already my heart misgave me.”

“I heard a voice call from one end of the gallery that the light was out.  The upper part of the hall was now completely dark.”

“Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.”

Joyce gives a lot of detail to sensory experience.  He says a lot in this story just like, “I heard this” or “I saw this” or “I felt the wind”—just real factual and detailed.  And that seems kind of poetic to me.  Overwhelming the reader’s senses.  Putting them there in the moment.

Dover Beach, and Culture & Anarchy, and Honeymoons, and the Sadness of Life, and Whatever This “Faith” Thing Is

Arnold’s primary focus in “Dover Beach” is the ebbing and flowing of tides, the sound of which he identifies as some sort of musical expression of the universal sadness of the human condition.  Or whatever you want to call it—”the 1000 natural shocks that flesh is heir to” or “life is nasty, brutish, and short” or “shit happens”—that kind of thing.  Arnold makes sure to emphasize this sadness; he writes about the “eternal note of sadness” brought in by the cadence of the tides, the “ebb and flow of human misery,” and the “melancholy” roar of the retreating water.  Arnold presumably wrote this about or during his honeymoon, right?  His wife was probably trying to be romantic and everything, like “Oh, just look at the beautiful Strait of Dover, darling!  What does it make you feel?”  “Sadness!  Misery!  Melancholy!”  He was probably a fun guy to hang with.

Anyway, so the first two stanzas kind of set the scene and establish the metaphor, and the last two seem to be the most important, to have the compelling stuff, the heart of his message.  In the 3rd stanza, he focuses his attention on one specific tide—not that of the Strait of Dover or of the Aegean, but rather the tide of the “Sea of Faith.”  And Arnold claims that the water of this sea is currently in retreat, ebbing, exposing the dreary vast edges and  “naked shingles of the world.”  And this is a bad thing.  Arnold speaks with grandeur of the time when the Sea of Faith was “at the full” and lay “like the folds of a bright girdle furled.”  So he’s lamenting the current state of society and longing for the past.  But what is the Sea of Faith?  Surely not just religious belief, right?  Because a spirit of Puritanism obviously prevails throughout the Victorian period, as Arnold talks about in Culture and Anarchy.  And while he acknowledges the importance of the “fire and strength” that religion gives, but criticizes fanaticism and insists that fire and strength must be reconciled with sweetness and light.  So I don’t think it’s a lack of fanaticism that he’s lamenting.  But also, “Dover Beach” and Culture and Anarachy were written 18 years apart, so Arnold’s beliefs probably changed and developed.  Anyway, I’m a little unsure what Arnold is referring to with the “Sea of Faith.”  I would tend to assume that by “faith” he means something like the “sweetness and light” that he talks about in Culture and Anarchy—the idea of pursuit of perfection as culture.  But if I were just reading “Dover Beach” without having read Culture and Anarchy, I probably wouldn’t make that connection, so maybe he means something else by “faith.”

Anyway, I feel like the 4th and final stanza is pretty straightforward.  In this perpetually sad, miserable world that we find ourselves—here on this “darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night”—it is important that we be true to one another.  We gotta stick together.  His reference in those closing lines to struggle and ignorant armies reminded me of the class struggle that he talks about in Culture and Anarchy.  He says that the whole reason that the English exalt the principle of “doing whatever I want” is because they’re afraid of oppressive tyranny.  But in that fear, he thinks, they’ve swung too far to the opposite end of the spectrum and now face the confusion and chaos of impending anarchy.  But there’s a middle ground between anarchy and tyranny!  And it is the stability of the State.  Which sounds scary, because “we only conceive of the State as something equivalent to the class in occupation of the executive government, and are afraid of that class abusing power to its own purposes.”  But nope, it’s actually a good thing, because “Culture […] seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere” etc.  In this ideal State-ruled society there would be no classes—just lots of sweetness and light.  So stop fighting each other, like the “ignorant armies” on that darkling plain.

Music and Literature

Talking in class yesterday about the shift in literature from the ideals of the Enlightenment to the ideals of the Romantic period, I was reminded of the parallel progression that occurred in Western classical music.  We can tend to think of classical music and just sort of lump together all the big names (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart) and say that that‘s classical music.  And we wouldn’t be wrong; just like we can list off Dafoe and Shelly and say that that‘s English literature.  But we wouldn’t get the whole picture.  We wouldn’t begin to appreciate the distinctions between worldviews of people from different historical eras, and how those worldviews uniquely influenced the way that authors wrote and musicians composed.  Mozart was a Classical (big C) composer, so his music is much more rigid and strict and concerned with proper form and balance and symmetry, because those are ideals of the Enlightenment.  And yes, it is beautiful and majestic of course, but it is nothing like Beethoven’s music from the Romantic period, which gushes and soars and has contrast and is concerned especially with feelings and passion.  So visual art, literature, music, etc. are all influenced by the philosophical ideas that dominated the eras in which those works were created.

It’s almost comical to observe the contrast between the style in which Frankenstein is written and the style in which Robinson Crusoe is written.  Victor is no doubt a Beethoven, whereas Robinson is definitely a Mozart.  Victor’s self-narration is dramatic; it heaves, breathlessly, overcome with passion.  The opening sentence declares that no one could possibly understand the emotions he is feeling, and then compares those emotions to a hurricane.  The whole passage is just exhausting!  Life and death!  Light and dark!  Fathers and sons!  Failure!  Success!  Horror!  Regret!  Loathing!  Eagerness!  Like, calm down, Victor.  Crusoe, on the other hand, is calm, concise, clinical, confident, and his narration is driven in all things by a sense of victory.  The way he tells his story is orderly; it trots along neatly and steadily.  And yet, the stories themselves of both books are inherently exciting.  Robinson Crusoe is a story of a shipwrecked survivor grappling with nature in solitude on an island!  Frankenstein is about a mad scientist who sews a monster together from corpses and then brings him to life!  It’s the style in which they’re written that provides the contrast.

It’s interesting to me that both stories, in different ways, deal with man’s mastery of nature.  Crusoe is humming along, encounters a cave that he needs to be bigger, and spends the rest of the day exulting in man’s ability to use tools to shape nature to suit his needs.  Ya know, it’s like Descartes’s Discourse on Method in 1636, in which he explains how technology is the answer and how man can become masters of the material world.  Unlimited progress!  We just use our reason and logic!  Victor Frankenstein’s scientific purposes too are a sort of mastery of nature.  Human nature, perhaps—the ability to create life, to shape a human being.  He uses his reason, his logic, his science, his technology, and finally realizes that he’s created a monster.  So perhaps Frankenstein is kind of speaking out against Enlightenment ideals?  Like, guys, maybe we should slow down and think about this first.  Just cause we have all this science and stuff doesn’t mean we should use it, cause we might accidentally do some bad things—like make a monster.