Striving After Wind

For the last few weeks, my church has been teaching through the book of Ecclesiastes for the Sunday sermons. I’ve really enjoyed digging into this chunk of Scripture, especially as an English major who has had more than his fair share of exposure to modernist literature. Anyways, as we began reading Melanctha, I began to notice a very common theme between the two texts: vanity. This vanity is not the condition of excessive pride or preoccupation with appearance; this vanity is the state of being futile or worthless.

Solomon, the widely accepted author of Ecclesiastes, begins his writings with the declaration that “vanity of vanities…all is vanity” (v.2). It’s a rather bleak introduction, but anyone with any experience in modernist literature will immediately sense a similar atmosphere being evoked to that of T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, or numerous other works. Later in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon again declares, “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (v.14). This idea of striving after wind is a very clear image of the feeling of vanity Solomon is referencing, and it creates an interesting parallel to the Modernist Period.

First, it is important to understand what this striving would look like. Wind is an interesting thing. It is not necessarily abstract because it can be felt, but it is not necessarily tangible because it can never be fully possessed or obtained. Second, it is important to distinguish the two situations in which we experience wind. In one situation, we are moving at a fast speed through the air that surrounds us. The other, more common experience, is when are standing still and the wind itself is now the traveling entity. While both could certainly be applied to the Modern experience, the second situation seems more relevant to Melanctha.

In Melanctha, the narrator provides an insight into Melanctha’s mind, and we see that there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment at what she finds. For instance, in one passage we see that “she always wandered, always seeking but never more than very dimly seeing” (96). Even in her relationships, we see that she “talked and stood and walked with many kinds of men, but she did not learn to know any of them very deeply” (96). Finally, in summary, the narrator tells us that in all she did she “herself did not feel the wonder, she only knew that for her it had no real value” (96). Like the passage in Ecclesiastes, we see Melanctha at a standstill, as men pass in and out of her life without her ever really being able to possess or obtain any of them. Her experienced is characterized by the sense that everything is pointless, that all of life is a series of ups and downs to be endured.

Overall, it is very interesting to notice the similarities between Melanctha (representing the Modern era) and the writer of Ecclesiastes. In fact, this connection proves another of Solomon’s declarations by suggesting that there is truly nothing new under the sun.

Time Travel in Virginia Woolf

In the chapters that compose “Time Passes,” Virginia Woolf seems to create her own timeline in which a number of gaps and holes appear. These gaps are not inconsistencies, nor are they inaccuracies when compared to the historical account of World War I. Rather, these holes appear when Woolf describes one scene that seems to exist on two separate occasions, yet are viewed simultaneously. An example of this is the description of Andrew Ramsay’s death. Woolf paints the picture of “ominous sounds like the measured blows of hammers dulled on felt…then again, silence fell; and then, night after night, and sometimes in plain mid-day…there seemed to drop into this silence, this indifference, this integrity, the thud of something falling” (133). Each of these instances of bombings are viewed simultaneously by the reader though they could take place over a period of days, months, or even years. Similarly, Woolf mechanically mentions that in France, Andrew was killed when “a shell exploded” (133). Again, this event could have taken place at any time during the war, yet the gap in the timeline is completely jumped.

This tactic of jumping through holes in the timeline allows Woolf to, essentially, time travel, and with stunning results. By utilizing obscurity of dates, Woolf is able to condense an entire decade into a mere twenty pages and shower her audience with experiences of World War I. This technique can even be viewed when Mrs. McNab is depicted cleaning the house. During her visits, she takes notice of all of the things in the house (the books, the cloak, the shawl, etc.) and their process of decay (135-136). As a reader, it is impossible to tell whether these descriptions are all from one visit, or whether these are observations of Mrs. McNab as she cleans the house over the course of an entire decade. Either way, time seems to exist all at once as the descriptions are absorbed by the reader. It is ironic that, though time passes, Woolf uses these elements of time travel to give the appearance of standing still.

Fragmentation and War

T.S. Eliot employs a great deal of fragmentation in his work, “The Waste Land.” The poem is divided into five sections, each given their own titles and each containing some form of independent theme/idea. This structure automatically establishes divisions—or fragments—in Eliot’s work. However, even within each designated section, the fragmentation continues. From stanza to stanza, there are evident shifts in focus, whether that focus be a theme, a work to which Eliot is alluding, or even a language that Eliot is writing in. For the most part, each stanza seems to be pretty unified. It is when each stanza is put together, however, that there appears to be no logical ordering to these ideas. For example, in Section I, near the end of the second stanza, Eliot is alluding to Tristan and Isolde (42). In the next stanza, Eliot abruptly jumps topics to discuss “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” (43). These two topics are completely unrelated, and it is very hard to see Eliot’s reasoning for leading from Point A to Point B in these lines.

The experience of reading “The Waste Land” is quite difficult because it appears to be nothing more than a stringing together of semi-related events; it is very hard to see the bigger picture while only experiencing one scene at a time. This structure of poetry strikes an interesting comparison to the structure of war. For instance, while studying WWI, it is fairly easy to understand the significance of individual events because history allows for a perspective that includes the “big picture”—the war in its entirety. For a soldier fighting in the war, however, this perspective would be impossible. This soldier may not feel like he was experiencing the “war,” but rather that he was experiencing nothing more than a stringing together of semi-related events (battles). The fragmentation of Eliot’s poem invokes the obscurity and meaninglessness of individual experiences that lack proper context. This could very well be a demonstration of the confusion of soldiers caught up in an event so much bigger than they could understand at the time. Eliot’s poem, like war, leaves a feeling of confusion about the past and questions about the future. Ultimately, both experiences leave the individual who endured the experience asking “what was the point?”

Pound and Joyce: It’s the Little Things

While it initially seems odd to compare a short story to a poem composed of a mere fourteen words, Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” and James Joyce’s “Eveline” are incredibly similar in the style with which they depict images and environments. Both works employ a listing of short, simple, and disjointed descriptions of the scene in order to provide a surprisingly realistic account of it. For example, Pound’s poem—in its entirety—describes “the apparition of these faces in the crowd; // petals on a wet, black bough.” As abstract as this may appear for literature, it is an incredibly accurate representation of the human sensory experience. The speaker of the poem is observing his or her surroundings and processing them one detail at a time. For most people, this is true. As life rushes by franticly, it is often important to pay careful attention to the fine details of an environment in order to truly understand it.

This is equally true in Joyce’s “Eveline.” For instance, the story opens on Eveline as she experiences her surroundings—her home—for perhaps the very last time. The record of her home, however, is very disjointed and simple. Rather than going into an elaborate description of the house and its contents, she notices “the odour of dusty cretonne.” Jumping from image to image, she hears “the man out of the last house [as he] passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement.” Like Pound’s poem, these details seem very random and even insignificant. However, she is noticing these details knowing that this is her last time to ever notice them. It is even possible that this is the first time she has noticed them; as she has lived her life in the service of her family, trying to maintain the household, it is possible that she never stopped to pay any attention to the subtleties of her home. In this way, it truly is the little things that she will miss because she was so unaware of their presence in her life in the first place.

Gaskell’s Cultural Selection

I found it rather difficult to draw a parallel between Gaskell’s “Our Society at Cranford” and Darwin’s scientific theories. At first, it seems that the depictions of Cranford are quite shallow just because the women seem so simple and so opposed to change. This can be seen in the residents’ routines and habits that do not vary and, as it seems, have not varied for some time. The narrator even states that “it was impossible to live a month at Cranford and not know the daily habits of each resident.” In this way, it seems that Cranford has tried to construct an environment of perfect consistency so that there will be no “struggle for existence” within the community. Based on Darwin’s theories, if there is no “struggle for existence,” then there is no need for Natural Selection, meaning that there is no need for change. I suppose that, by creating this alternate theory of natural harmony, the text does seem to acknowledge the processes of natural selection and a “survival of the fittest” mentality.

This perhaps explains why the introduction of Captain Brown causes such a commotion. His presence, simply by being different than that of the other residents, creates an environment of competition. He represents the cultural change in the environment that will force the ladies of Cranford to adapt, or evolve, to a new way of life. Now, the ladies are perhaps no longer equal because some may be able to adapt better than others. I’m not entirely sure as to whether or not this is a sound argument for this text simply because I had a very difficult time drawing any comparisons. However, I think that Gaskell perhaps creates a cultural representation of what Darwin describes as the Selection process.

Culture, Anarchy, and Light on the Coast of France

                In “Dover Beach,” Arnold seems very focused on illuminating the overwhelming sense of despair pervading his society at the time. This is somewhat understandable. Based on other readings about the early Victorian Period and the immense amounts of cultural changes occurring during this time, it is easy to see how individuals felt like their entire world—everything they had known and been familiar with—was being taken away from them. This realization is brought to light in the poem when Arnold discusses how this world, “so various, so beautiful, so new, // Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, // Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain.” Certitude may be the most important characteristic that this new world is lacking, as it shows that there is no sense of security in such great change.

                In my opinion, one of the most interesting lines in the poem occurs when Arnold describes that “on the French coast the light // Gleams and is gone.” The inclusion of light in this moment draws a parallel to Culture and Anarchy in which Arnold explains that “he who works for…light, works to make reason and the will of God prevail.” If that same idea is applied to the light discussed in “Dover Beach,” then this could very well be a commentary on the early efforts of the French Revolution in which the society (if not only temporarily) seemed poise to reach one of those “happy moments of humanity…when there is a national glow of life and thought, when the whole of society is in the fullest permeated by thought, sensible to beauty, intelligent and alive.” Perhaps Arnold relates the glimpse of this light on the French coast as a time when the “sweetness and light” of culture almost occurred so near to England, but so devastatingly fell apart. This failure of the attempt to pursue perfection as a society could very well be a reason that Arnold illuminates “human misery.” In other words, the ideal society had already been attempted, and yet proved to be impossible and unattainable.

Portrayals of Religion in Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”

In William Blake’s poem, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” the idea of religion is dissected and even protested in a manner that seems very appropriate for Romantic thought. It appears as if Blake is calling his readers to challenge their own beliefs—to question things for themselves—as opposed to simply accepting everything they hear or observe from religious officials as absolute truth. This sense of independence can be seen in his proverb that “if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.” Through this proverb, Blake asserts that wisdom is found through an individual’s own experiences and learning from one’s mistakes as opposed to passively listening to the lecturing of another.

The colorings of the plates in each edition help to support this idea, yet in two completely opposite methods. The darker colors of the 1794 edition provide a sense of dread and bleakness that is perfectly characteristic of Blake’s depiction of religion at the time. For example, in this edition, the figures all seem to be dully illuminated in a background of darkness. This darkness represents ignorance, and the dull illumination of each figure represents the individual’s tendency to simply fade into the darkness around them (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.e.illbk.16&java=no).  The 1790 edition, on the other hand, seems to portray the element of passivity that Blake attributes to many religious people. The use of colors such as pink, yellow, light blue, and lavender provide an overly-idealized view of the physical world, heaven, and hell. In other words, the figures seem so complacent in their surroundings, that the surroundings themselves lose all credibility.  For instance, a figure resting in a hell composed of yellow and pink demonstrates how people have no real idea what hell actually is, or heaven for that matter (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.c.illbk.21&java=no). Whether it is the idealized “fantasy” hell, or the bleak reality of ignorance, both printings help support Blake’s call to action.