“Endgame” and “The Waste Land”

In reading Samuel Beckett’s Endgame there are several obvious ways in which the text engages with the history of Britain while still existing outside of a specific historical timeline. Then, when one compares the play to The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot one does not immediately see the correlation between the two pieces but later realizes that Hamm and Clov are living imprisoned in a wasteland of their own making. Their dead, mechanical lives along with the sad, pathetic lives of Nell and Nagg clearly align with Eliot’s assertion that man, “each in his prison, thinking of the key, each confirms a prison”. These correlations eventually lead one to conclude that both Eliot and Beckett wanted their readers to see the hopeless, mechanical state of western civilization post-war, however, even as I saw their primary points, the main correlation that I saw between the two pieces was the message of hope.

In Endgame we see that Beckett views existences as circular things, where every end is also a beginning. While Hamm and Clov are stuck in the endgame of their actual lives, they cannot help but wonder if they are “not beginning to mean something”. The way in which Beckett constructs the play also lends itself to the idea of new beginnings with its numerous allusions to Christ, whose death gave birth to a new religion and the killing of the flea from which humanity may be reborn. In Endgame it would seem, death related endings are synonymous with new beginnings. In The Waste Land, while hopelessness definitely takes center stage, the end of the poem changes the scope of what Eliot was saying with the simple word “shantih”. This Sanskrit word means peace or calmness but the way in which it was used in the poem means “the peace which passeth understanding” and the use of this word allows the reader to finish the poem with some idea of a hopeful beginning. I think that Beckett and Eliot, even as they were consumed with the idea that western civilization was a wasteland, still chose to end their works with a message of hope because despite their cynicism, they knew that life could not – and would not – remain hopeless forever.

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Time Passes

In the second chapter of “To The Lighthouse”, Virginia Woolf uses the continuous analogy of the decade long decay of the Ramsay house to examine the stark aftermath left by World War I in England and the slow crumble of an empire. The chapter begins with Mr. Bankes simply stating “we must wait for the future to show” which mirrors the terse anticipation with which the British public viewed the coming war.

As the house descends into darkness and rains begins to pour, “nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood” (England is overcome by it’s own anguish). The house lurches, “for she rolled like a ship at sea” and it leers “for her eyes fell on nothing directly… she was witless and she knew it” (the British public are ignorant in their leadership and are awash like a vessel without a Captain). Mrs. Ramsay dies first. Her beauty can no longer be used as a source of comfort to her fearfully anguished husband (loss of beauty in England) or as a catalyst to bring the family together (loss of unity as a nation). Prue dies next in childbirth (loss of fertility as a nation). Then Andrew dies in France (the young men are not coming home). “The house was left, the house was deserted, like a shell on a sandhill” (the nation is fractured, scattered, the people are abandoning one another and there is a collective loss of identity). “For now had come that moment, that hesitation when dawn trembles and night pauses,” (the nation begins to awaken from the nightmare and heal itself) the house may still be in disarray, but someone has begun to fix it. “At last, after days of labour… it was finished” (the nation has rebuilt itself and come out from the fog). “Her eyes opened wide. here she was again… awake.”

Darwinian Theory At Work in Cranford

The similarities I found between Charles Darwin’s theories on evolution and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Our Society at Cranford, were surprising and at the same time bemusing. However, if I had not been looking for a likeness between the these literary works I doubt I would have ever remotely connected them. The first – and most obvious connection deals with Darwin’s thoughts on the survival of the fittest. The entire concept of the weak dying out and the strong subsisting is very present in Our Society at Cranford. The only member of the Brown family who survived the tale was Miss Jenkyns, who, when described appeared to be the most “desirable.” The narrator states, “I do not know whether she was pretty or not; but I liked her face, and so did everybody else.” Miss Jenkyns fate is contrasted with that of Miss Brown, who did not have a lengthy life because she was “defective.”

Next, Darwin’s thoughts on social echelons seemed to become the crux behind the entire Cranford tale. One of the main issues that the Brown family faces is the question of where they fit in the social hierarchy of Cranford. This problem becomes the focus of the tale which implodes when two of the family members die. Then, Miss Jenkyns sets their social standing to rights by having the youngest Brown daughter marry someone who in her equal in society which compliments Darwin’s ideas about marriage. Gaskell appears to have no qualms with punishing her characters for stepping outside of Darwinian theory (even if she wasn’t aware of that she was doing it when writing this story) and seems to restrict her characters to actions that are in line with what Darwin advocates. The characters who survive and succeed in this story are the ones who are described to be Darwinian theory personified.

The Conflicting Viewpoints of Matthew Arnold

In reading “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” together I was first and foremost impressed with Matthew Arnold’s range as a writer. Arnold takes the two sides of one issue and argues both ways of thought rather well, which unfortunately is where my main issue with these works of literature begins. Reading the pieces side by side paints Arnold as an unconvinced zealot whose opinions on modernity seem almost bi-polar as times.

His first thoughts on modernity are seen in “Dover Beach”  where he speaks as one in love with nature (sweet is the night air / from the long line of spray / where the sea meets the moon-blanched land), fascinated by spirituality (the sea of faith / was once too at the full / and round the earth’s shore) and deeply convinced that the lives of the ancients were in some way superior to any modern experience (Sophocles long ago / heard it on the Aegean).  These romantic notions stand in stark contrast to his brash and disillusioned way of speaking in “Culture and Anarchy.” 

In the ten years between “Dover Beach” and “Culture and Anarchy” it is my opinion that Arnold grew into somewhat of a modernist. He champions modern culture (through culture seems to lie our way, not only to perfection, but even to safety), rejects a great deal of religious ideals (it is not that Hellenism is always for everybody more wanted than Hebraism, but that it is more wanted), and the majority of the piece is focused on the examinations of modern culture rather than any remarks about nature.

Where I grow troubled as a reader is in noticing that Arnold defends both ideals incredibly well. This creates a lack of confidence in his actual convictions. For instance, if Arnold is merely arguing these issues and is saying whatever is necessary to prove his point, then of what value are his opinions? Unfortunately, I can find no indication that he supports one ideal over the other and must retire that query for another time.

Dionysian Energy and Regulated Perception

The thing that intrigues me immensely about the two editions of William Blake’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is not simply the differences in the illustrations but rather the way in which the changing illustrations represent how Blake’s ideologies regarding hell evolved over time. Unlike the representations of hell during his time, Blake did not appear to regard hell as a place of punishment but rather as a source of unrepressed, irrational, Dionysian energy. This irreverent idea complimented well his theory that heaven was merely a place of repressive, regulated perception. The entire prose piece spent a great deal of time flinging those two ideologies about until it eventually decided that “…a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood; Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales. And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.”

While reading the prose in and of itself could create discussions for fifty blog posts, reading the two different editions led me to several conclusions about Blake. Firstly, when reading the edition from 1790, I got the feeling that Blake was just testing out his theories on hell. Motivated by his dislike of the philosophies of the time (represented by references to Swedenborg) the imagery he created focused mainly on his theories about heaven. When looking at the plates one gets a feeling for the rigid perception that Blake had of heaven (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.c.illbk.01&java=yes). Secondly, the edition from 1794 gave me the feeling that Blake had more time to come to terms with his philosophies and no longer had any hesitations when presenting his version of hell. While the images are not necessarily terrifying, they do overwhelm the viewer with the sensation of an unholy and slightly irrational energy. (http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=mhh.e.illbk.01&java=yes). It is true that Blake did not change the wording of his piece very much between the editions, but it is clear that something within Blake changed, at least enough to influence how he envisioned heaven and hell. It is my belief that the change was simply Blake becoming more invested and more sure of the work that he had created.

William Wordsworth and the Picturesque

“No poem of mine was composed under circumstances more pleasant for me to remember than this.” – William Wordsworth

The feeling that resonated most strongly with me after reading Tintern Abbey was not the appreciation of nature and peaceful calm that I have come to expect when reading pastoral poetry but rather an intense feeling of understanding. In presenting readers with this poem I feel that William Wordsworth has given modern readers an opportunity to understand him as a writer and as a human being. While the poem does celebrate the landscape and magnify nature, it does so in a way that reveals Wordsworth’s strong emotions against enlightenment and helps explain to us why his poems seem to flit about in a picturesque dreamscape all their own and refuse to be grounded in clinical, scientific thought.

This poem presents Wordsworth as both a lover and worshipper of nature. He says that the “quietness and beauty that so feeds / with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues /  rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men / Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all / The dreary intercourse of daily life / Shall e’er prevail against us.” Those lines reveal Wordsworth’s view of nature as a protector from the sneering, evil world and imply that nature is in some way his benefactor. While this poem illustrates picturesque imagery quite well, what was most picturesque to me were Wordsworth’s quietly inserted thoughts about society and nature. He spent the vast majority of the poem magnifying the landscape but the underlying theme seemed to be that nature had in some way healed him. By including these brief looks into his soul, Wordsworth successfully grounds this poem in personal conviction rather than merely discussing how beautiful the trees are. He viewed nature as a lovely work of art and created this poem to reflect back to us a perfect example of the picturesque ideal of beauty.

 

Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein’s Monster

In reading excerpts from Robinson Crusoe and Frankenstein, it is striking to me how these two books – while being quite different – illustrate the two most fundamental sides of being human. Our narrator in Robinson Crusoe, after being washed on the shore of a deserted island spends most of his tale dealing with the more basal needs of man (ie. food, clothing, shelter). He describes in an almost clinical detail, his mastery over nature, the need for goods over money and dominance over his surroundings. In Frankenstein as the monster awakens, he is confronted by the emotional needs of man (ie. a need for identity, need for companionship and a thirst for knowledge). The monster finds himself betrayed by his ideas about humanity because he cannot find a counterpart or sameness among those whom he observes. In reading these two texts I was struck by the innate desire for primary needs – companionship, nourishment, safety, identity – and I believe that while the journeys for both of these characters are completely dissimilar, these stories force their readers to examine the fundamental needs of man, whether emotional or physical and help to identify humanity’s desires at their most primitive roots.