Margaret Atwood, problematic statements on Twitter aside, is an incredible writer. Death by Landscape is enigmatic but simply written. I find it interesting that it’s grouped in with the “Paternal Legacies” section but has no real paternal figure or theme- I think I’m missing something.
Anyway, I’m not even truthfully sure what I think of what I’ve just read. I think that certain turns of phrase are stunning, generally at the end of these little two paragraph thought bubbles. I think that on the first read through it didn’t go remotely in the direction I thought it might, but I may have misinterpreted the tone. I don’t know what to think- who is Lois and who is Lucy?
How does this relate at all to like European colonialism? The text explicitly stresses that Camp Manitou was a place for well-off children, that they had to write excited letters because it cost so much money. It reflects a little on the Great Depression, and then that’s about the extent of the socioeconomic commentary. There’s no apparent dynamic even hinting towards (racial) identity in a colonial framework.
To me personally it read like a Stephen King short story if Stephen King had been a girl scout, and also a better writer. I don’t really know what that means beyond how it sounds. There’s gotta be something- the encounter with Cappie at the end could maybe be a metaphor for like, “adult supervision” being actually useless and generally arbitrarily judicial in the face of proper tragedy. But this interpretation removes agency from the colonialists, which is tantamount to apologism.
It’s a beautifully written story, and my brain worms making it impossible to decide what it means or how it relates to the other things I’ve read today are actually hindering my ability to enjoy it. Alas.
This stuff is impossible to read. It’s impossible, right? I’m one of those straight white men that loves talking about David Foster Wallace and even I find this stuff almost completely nonsensical and interminable. I struggled with these readings. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself very disheartened by an encounter with Ulysses. It’s a staggering work of genius and the single most important English language novel and blah blah blah and it flat out makes me feel dumb. This week Forster was the most agreeable, Woolf was work-with-able, Joyce was a screeching nightmare.
Like all of my responses thus far its instructive for me to meditate a good amount on the social, cultural, and historical differences between then and now that inform my foremost reactions. With that said, one of my initial impressions (of Dalloway at least) is that as far as narrative mode goes the stream of consciousness is rather clunky. Parts of transitions between scenes and perspectives almost read like a written version of a toddler trying to tell you a story but without really knowing how to tell stories- “and then, there was a gun shot outside in the street, and then the woman said ‘oh my im sorry its those auto car mobiles’ and it was a back fire actually and then they went outside and someone was in the car and then there were more people standing around and then etc. etc. etc.” It sounds disparaging until you realize there’s not very many better vocalizations of the “semi-transparent envelope” of consciousness than a kid babbling eternally about nothing and everything.
Disclaimer here to explicitly say I’m not likening Virginia Woolf’s work to a toddler- if anything the organic nature of the prose highlights the clear intention of story Woolf has. There’s a blueprint of the pathos and ethos she wants to explore and she explores them thoroughly, it’s just the specifics of the language that are changing, evolving. I’m told Joyce does a similar thing, I’m going to have to take y’alls word for it.
It only took like 6 thousand years of “civilization” for people to start to question whether or not incessant war and conquest and violence was bad. The three selections of voices from World War One all subvert traditional glorification of war in their own ways, whereas Yeats’ Second Coming and Eliot’s The Waste Land make more of a commentary about the general uncertainty and volatility of European society at the time.
Siegfried’s piece points fingers pretty directly whereas Rosenberg and Owen write more in situ, albeit a situation that may present as abstract or intentionally vague. Siegfried writes directly to women, and by extension all groups of people not on the front lines- “you worship decorations; you believe that chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace,” (Lines 3 and 4.) Siegfried is clearly rustled by the idea that people that will never have to deal with the unpleasant realities of war still feel entitled to opinions about the nobility and necessity of war. His tone suggests that while he’s upset with the dynamic at play he doesn’t really hold his audience directly responsible- “You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire.’” I could be reading too much into his wording here but the use of “can’t” instead of “won’t” implies that even his audience is at the whim of society, not unlike the soldiers. In other words, SIegfried wants to fault the system and not the groups of people.
Rosenberg and Owen seem less concerned with the social dynamics of groups not directly in the trenches- Rosenbergs piece evokes the indifference to race or creed that nature must have for us. In this rats-eye view context the atrocities of war become even less justifiable. Owen as well is fixated on the universality of the soldiers identity and experience- “I am the enemy you killed, my friend. I knew you in this dark.”
Yeats and Eliot deal with the war in any even more abstract way- by decrying the possibility of any hope for the future and frantically prophesying the literal end of days. With that said, The Second Coming is one of my favorite single pieces of written word, mostly just for the beauty of the prose in and of itself. If you catch me at the right time and place I will drunkenly recite the last 5 lines, followed by a proclamation of which American politician I personally believe to be the rough beast that was slouching toward Bethlehem.
The Waste Land is dense, referential, heavily reliant on preexisting knowledge of esoteric mythology and literature and stage drama, and still also somehow revolutionary, groundbreaking. While different specific points in the text are certainly worth consideration, my number one question is this: If one of the central themes of The Waste Land is that society was transitioning into some new horrific form of itself that had never before been seen, why is it so necessary to reference literary/artistic works of the age now past every other line?
It’s a corny liberal arts kid thing to be like “omg I luv Oscar Wilde” but I do actually really love Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest, to me personally, represents a crucial turning point where Victorian literature became somewhat readable, even for a generation that grew up with iPhones.
The language can certainly still be a bit flowery in places, but Wildes’ dialogue is snappy, engaging, and self-aware in the best possible way. There’s a theoretical metric of density in comedic writing that basically is just the ratio of jokes per word or words per joke, and Wildes’ ratio in Earnest was way ahead of its time. It’s hard to not hear the Seinfeld bass riff in my head after some of these punchlines, but I suspect that says more about me than it does about the literary prowess of either Oscar Wilde or Larry David.
I also have my own theories about Wildes’ place in a historic line of playwrights and authors that were building a long tradition of comedic/ironic self-aware narration into what ultimately would wind up being the nightmare void of postmodernism. One of the original definitions of irony was a story wherein the audience knows something crucial the characters don’t, right? Which predates even Shakespeare by like hundreds if not thousands of years. Earnest represents another evolution in that narrative form in the sense that his is an irony wherein the audience knows some crucial information but there’s even more that the audience and characters get to learn simultaneously.
Wilde’s inventiveness in deconstruction and ironic commentary paint a sharp picture of the absurdity of Victorian value systems. Self-serving, manipulative, amorphous characters are friendly with one another only so far as it’s what serves their interests best in that moment. Sliding scales of morality make it easy to justify whatever they want. And all along, characters dishonesty with each other mirrors the dishonestly with themselves that reality has in store for them.
At the risk of getting overly personal on day one of week two- I’m a child of divorce. Statistically, so are about 14 of you. It sounds silly but my own experiences with (very modern) Modern Love really colored how i reacted to these readings. It seems as though some problems or even fundamental relationship dynamics are about as old as the relationships themselves.
While independent women were still something of a fantasy at the time, the bravery of stories like The Defence of Guenevere captured peoples imaginations. My instinctive first reaction is that the concept of a courageous, sex positive woman boldly pursuing her happiness is… something society is still having trouble with even today. With that in mind the historical context of the story seems even more progressive. I believe there’s an argument to be made that Gueneveres behavior is somewhat responsible for the breaking down of masculine codes of honor and conduct insofar as those same codes are built upon the subservience of the women they help to oppress.
In my mind the nagging after thought re: this story is… What happens fifteen years later when another noble knight comes to passionately rescue Guenevere from her boorish husband, a now-aging-poorly Lancelot? Armchair relationship counselors love telling people “If they’ll cheat with you, they’ll cheat on you.” Did Morris even consider there could be a cyclical nature to the story he was telling? Does it even really matter considering the primary elements of the story are female independence and the importance of being true to ones own loves? Am I missing something obvious that makes this whole train of thought sound goofy?
The concept of the fallen woman is the logical endpoint of a Ruskinian value system- I.e. if your role is solely submissive and domestic than any attempt to subvert those domestic expectations is disgraceful. Furthermore, the conflation of basic sexuality with immorality strikes me as very, um, traditional. George Meredith gets my vote for most nuanced take at the time- “Cold as a mountain in its star-pitched tent, Stood high philosophy, less friend than foe: Whom self-caged passion, from its prison bars, is always watching with a wondering hate” and “What are we first? First, animals; and next intelligences at a leap; on whom pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb.” All throughout Modern Love are these little distillations of lust, anger, love. It’s, for me, the most striking and… visible portrait of a (failing) relationship. What did you see as you read it?
Let’s just jump right into it. I understand that during that period of history there was a social context that made even moderate forms of feminist independence seem far fetched, but some of this stuff is still jaw dropping to read.
For me personally the most striking passage from the first section of readings is wherein Sarah Stickney Ellis indirectly claims Victorian women made the pillaging and subjugation of whole continents possible- “But as far as the noble daring of Britain has sent forth her adventurous sons… they have borne along with them a generosity, disinterestedness, and a moral courage, derived in no small measure from the female influence of their native country.” (pg. 658.) Ok, wow, lot to unpack there. Lets start off with the fact that I don’t think British conduct in, say, India at the time was anything close to generous. The fact that anyone would want to take credit for what the British Empire was up to at the time is mind boggling.
Next, lets consider that this argument is, in a lot of ways, just another version of Ruskin’s theories- the separate spheres and all that. While I must admit that acknowledging that the progression of society is directly correlated to synergy and equality between the genders, it’s still jarring to me to read how off base even the most extreme of radicals were. It’s a useless thought experiment, but I bet that if they (Ruskin, Ellis, Mill, et al.) could’ve known in the 1800s that 200 years later women were still going to be battling evil old white men for basic human rights, they would’ve gone a step further than “women should be treated less in-equally because they clean the house REALLY WELL.”
The final, and most prominent, reaction I had to Ellis’ claim is this- it almost sounds like her cheer-leading of imperialism is a bizarre historical Stockholm syndrome. It seems no one at the time considered that the Victorian women and the populations of “every point of danger on the habitable globe,” had some things in common. Primarily, both groups found themselves oppressed by and at the mercy of the greed, violence, and thoughtlessness of empire and capital. There’s a lot of talk these days about how feminism without intersectionality is just bougie racism, and Ellis’ meandering praise of imperialist domination reminds me of this strongly. It’s almost like the majority of stories in recorded history thus far are stories of dehumanized groups struggling against their oppressors- namely old white men.