Original Thinking

Feeling the need for positive change?

With the Sun in Aries and the Moon in Sagittarius, the next couple of days offer the perfect opportunity to initiate it and during this precipitous period, your strongest asset will most definitely be original thinking.

Case Study:

Queen of the Desert –  tells the story of British-born Gertrude Bell who was not only an adventurer, spy, and archaeologist but also political powerhouse for positive change.

 

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  • it’s 22 March 1921,
  • final day of the Cairo Conference,
  • last chance to determine the postwar future of the Middle East,
  • members of the British delegation have stopped for a photo-shoot,
  • to the amusement of all, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill has just fallen off his camel,
  • TE Lawrence (otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia), is uncomfortable in his pin-striped suit and trilby,
  • between them  in a rose-decorated straw hat, is Gertrude Bell – the sole delegate possessing information indispensable to making the Conference successful.

How did Bell, a female descendant of Cumbrian sheep farmers, arrive at this pinnacle?

For details, you’ll need to read Bell’s biography by Georgina Howell or see the fabulous movie (2015) starring Nicole Kidman.

But I can tell you that the huge success enjoyed by Gertrude Bell  was not achieved by thinking like all the other Edwardian ladies!

The Meow of Kafka’s Metamorphosis


The Meow of Kafka’s Metamorphosis

 

 

 

“One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that he had been changed into an adorable kitten.”

Thus begins the Meowmorphosis by Coleridge Cook– a quirky parody on Kafka’s magical realism novel, Metamorphosis. Although superficially Cook’s story parallels Kafka’s, in more substantial terms it differs significantly and it is through these differences that I wish to investigate what I perceive is one of the most important purposes of magical realism and how such purpose can be best achieved.

According to Maggie Ann Bowers (20–21), what is meant by the term magical realism is in dispute and can be best resolved through careful delineation of both the terms “magic(al)” and “realism”.  The foundation of “realism” rests on Descartes’ proposition that truth is that which can be discovered through sensory perception (Bowers, 21). In other words, truth is established in the mind’s reconstruction of it (Dupré, 80). From the mid-18th century onwards, Cartesian thinking has dominated Western perceptions of the world.

However, once, a long time ago, men held a more holistic view in which form and meaning were unified in the single – albeit complex – kosmos – the ordered totality of being (Dupré, 15-19).  I suggest that the term “magic(al)” which Bowers defines as the assumption that extraordinary things have really happened (Bowers, 21) is in reality a return to kosmos where the realm of appearances yields no genuine knowledge but only opinion (Dupré,18).

Clearly these two worldviews are at odds.  However I suggest that through their fusion (i.e. returning full circle to kosmos), magical realism authors achieve one of their primary (postmodern) aims – to challenge the assumptions upon which the establishment ‘truth’ is constructed.  In this regard, the purpose of magical realism is similar to that of the postmodern sublime which, according to Jean-François Lyotard, depicts the un-representable as outside the realm of perception in order to keep the focus on within rather than without so as to provide insight about how one perceives his world (Lutzker).[1]

According to postmodern concepts of the sublime, we establish boundaries through cosmologies or a “fitting order” (Angelo, 16). The sublime (as does, I suggest, magical realism) requires a certain type of cosmology–a psychologically spatial orientation of something that is “me” and something that is “other than me” (Angelo, 17). It is through the shift between this microcosm and macrocosm and back again that one enlarges her perspective. Thus I suggest that the greater the disparity between me/realism and other than me/magic, the more effective is magical realism in encouraging readers to search for the narrative clues that will broaden their horizons. Conversely, the less disparity, the more likely readers are to accept the authorial perception of truth without question.

So how do Kafka and Cook stack up? In both their novels, readers are confronted with a typical magical realism ploy.  In the “real” world men do not wake up in the morning having been ‘magically’ transformed into animals.  Similarly, in both novels all the characters do not question that such things are possible.  Disparity for certain.  However, while in Kafka’s story, Gregor becomes a cockroach (or in the German literally an “unclean animal not suitable for sacrifice”), in Cook’s version, he becomes an adorable kitten.

The image of a cockroach is truly disgusting. We expect bad things to happen and we are not disappointed. By choosing the cockroach, Kafka has established an immediately disparaging and depressing link between his imagery and his overall theme – the risks and rewards of an individual’s conformance with the demands of society.  Cockroaches are lowly creatures indeed.  One can be pretty certain how a cockroach will fare.  Not much disparity there.

Alternatively, to explore the same theme, Cook has chosen an extremely pleasant image–an adorable kitten. Here, readers are not certain what to expect.  Although cockroaches are easily understood as being something to be squashed underfoot, kittens are not.  Indeed in many societies it is just the reverse.  Yet somehow the reader has a niggling fear that things will not work out well. Elsewise why would he be reading the novel? If the aim of magical realism is to broaden readers’ horizons through disparity, then surely the more challenged the reader is to unravel the narrative’s mystery, the more challenged are their cherished assumptions about ‘truth’?

Equally, by choosing the image of a furry kitten, I suggest that Cook has made sounder use than Kafka of Gregor’s treasured picture of the woman in the fur coat.  It is commonly believed that this picture is a metafiction alluding to Sacher-Masoch’s sadomasochistic novella, Venus in Furs and while Kafka provides few, if any, clues as to why this would enhance his theme, Cook provides them in aces.  By introducing an adorable furry kitten that is both the willing and unwilling subject of serious petting by his sister, Cook shines a direct spotlight on Gregor’s potentially incestuous relationship.  Might it be that like the hero in Venus in Furs, Gregor is so infatuated with his sister that he has become her slave and this is the reason he encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways?  Does he…(you know what)… or doesn’t he…?  Uggh.  Plenty of delightfully dark disparity here.

Finally, it is Gregor’s escape from and subsequent return to, his family after his trial by the other cats of Prague (during which he confronts his cowardly ways), which I suggest provides the most insight about Gregor’s ordeal.  While such an extended internalized character exposé (it goes on for twenty or so pages) might be seen as a weakness in that it leaves less to the reader’s imagination, I welcome it. In my view it is only because Gregor finally takes an active decision that we can understand, that we can believe that he is for “real”.

In summary, when Gregor becomes a cockroach, it’s easy for readers to fall into the lull of yet another rant in support of victims of societal politics. However if one of the most important aims of magical realism is to challenge our automatic perception of “truth”, then I suggest that Cook bests Kafka through utilizing the gloriously incongruous imagery of an adorable, furry kitten who, however OMG cute, possesses a “truly” tortured soul.

 _________________________________________

Bibliography

Angelo, Marie.  “Placing the Sublime: Cosmology in the Consulting Room” (15-45). On the Sublime in Psychoanalysis, Archetypal Psychology and Psychotherapy. ed. By Petruska Clarkson.  London: Whurr Publishers Lit., 1997.

Bowers, Mary Ann.   Magic(al) Realism. London: Routledge, 2004.

Butler, Christopher. Postmodernism-A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Cook, Coleridge and Franz Kafka. The Meowmorphosis. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2011.

Dupré, Louis. Passage to Modernity – An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Lutzker, Emily.  “Ethics of the Sublime in Postmodern Culture – A Talk from the International Conference Aesthetics and Ethics”. http://www.egs.edu/media/research-database/ (7/4/2012)


[1] For an example, the French post-modernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that ‘hyperreal’ art stimulates audiences to evaluate reality through ‘self-seduction’.  So when faced with Disneyland imagery, the aesthetic response requires Americans to question whether this or their own lives represents the ‘real’ America (Butler, 112).

Literary Criticism / passage from Winterson’s ‘The Passion’ – how did I do?

The following is an extract from Jeanette Winterson’s novel, The Passion.

After this, is my literary critique (close reading) of the passage.  It was written for a course.

How did I do?

…………………………

The surface of the canal had the look of polished jet.  I took off my boots slowly, pulling the laces loose and easing them free.  Enfolded between each toe were my own moons.  Pale and opaque.  Unused.  I had often played with them but I never thought they might be real.  My mother wouldn’t even tell me if the rumours were real and I have no boating cousins.  My brothers are gone away.

Could I walk on that water?

Could I?

I faltered at the slippery steps leading into the dark.  It was November, after all.  I might die if I fell in.  I tried balancing my foot on the surface and it dropped beneath into the cold nothingness.

Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?

I stepped out and in the morning they say a beggar was running round the Rialto talking about a young man who’d walked across the canal like it was solid.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.

 

When we met again I had borrowed an officer’s uniform.  Or more precisely, stolen it.

This is what happened.

At the Casino, well after midnight, a solider had approached me and suggested an unusual wager.  If I could beat him at billiards he would make me a present of his purse.  He held it up before me.  It was round and nicely padded and there must be some of my father’s blood in me because I have never been able to resist a purse.

And if I lost?  I was to make him a present of my purse.  There was no mistaking his meaning. 

We played, cheered on by a dozen bored gamblers and, to my surprise, the solider played well.  After a few hours at the Casino nobody plays anything well.

I lost.

We went to his room and he was a man who like his women face down, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ.  He was able and easy and soon fell asleep.   He was also about my height.  I left him his shirt and boots and took the rest.

 

She greeted me like an old friend and asked me straight away about the uniform.

‘You’re not a solider.’

‘It’s fancy dress.’

I began to feel like Sarpi, that Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.  Many times that evening as we ate and drank and played dice I prepared to explain.  But my tongue thickened and my heart arose up in self-defence.

 

……………………………………………………………………………………..

 

This engaging passage is from Winterson’s postmodern, metafictional, magical realism novel, The Passion. [1]  In it, our heroine (Villanelle)[2] uses her romance with the married ‘Queen of Spades’ to investigate the discourse of (lesbian) passion through the motif of games of chance.[3]  That the reference to a deck of playing cards is the only clue to the identity of the object of Villanelle’s passion is significant.  In ancient myths, to know one’s name was to hold power over her.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

According to Christopher Butler, the most important postmodern ethical concern is the relationship between discourse and power (Postmodernism – A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.44).  Through the discourse of power we are normalised – made ‘uniform’ – by inviolable truths thrust at us by advertisers, and political and religious leaders.  (Butler, 50). By pushing back at the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, Winterson asks us to challenge the discourse of power.   To do this, we must suspend our most cherished beliefs and what better way to do that than through ‘fiction?’

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, magical realism is a kind of modern fiction in which ’fabulous and fantastical events are included in a narrative that otherwise maintains the reliable tone of objective realistic report.’ Magical realism urges the reader to set aside her usual assumptions and see her world through new eyes.  Magical realism turns away from science and empiricism and returns to folklore and mysticism in order to undermine the establishment’s established ‘truth’.  Only in this way can we hope to explore different ‘truths’ about our world and how we live in it.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, metafiction is a ‘fiction about fiction’, which ‘openly comments on its own fictional status.’  The technique is purposefully jarring so as to refocus the reader’s attention from the story to the process of storytelling.  The technique, especially in conjunction with the first person narrative, is often used for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to a friend relating a story, we are aware that it is filtered through her perceptions and prejudices.

This is wholly appropriate for our friend, Villanelle.  For even as she searches for meaning, she reminds us that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

As friends, we do trust her.  Equally, forewarned is forearmed.  Why the exhortation if all were as it would seem to be?  The heightened tension forces us, as Winterson doubtless desires, to pay even closer attention to the text.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

For readers to creatively address this question, Winterson must craft an atmosphere in which such things appear possible.  This she does par excellence.  Through imagery, we slip into the soft, slow, dreamy world of nighttime where, from personal experience, we know the borderlands of reality are blurred.

In the first paragraph, we discover that the surface of the ‘canal’ has the look of ‘polished jet’; we begin to relax with the onomatopoeia – polished – the ‘shhh’ of our mother encouraging us to stop fussing and fall asleep.   We sink further into the reverie as Villanelle takes her boots off ‘slowly’, pulls the laces ‘loose’, and eases them ‘free’.  We are invited to ‘play’ with her as she examines her own ‘moons’ (webbed feet) – ‘pale and opaque’ – ‘moons’ that even she is not certain are ‘real’.  The invoked lunar world is akin to the unconscious – a fascinating – yet dangerous place – in which intuition and feeling take precedence over rationality and thought.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

“Could I walk on that water?”  With this example of intertextuality, we are launched into the metaphysical, miraculous world of faith.  With this example of intertextuality, our spiritual selves are challenged to rise above the negativity of the material world to be fully realised in the bosom of God. By referencing the Bible (Matthew 14:22-33), Winterson cleverly triggers brand awareness.  God is a powerful spin-doctor.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

The powerful truth is that, without faith, there is no redemption.  Be not afraid.  Yet doubt not, we are not safe.  Without faith, we could still ‘falter’ at the ‘slippery steps leading into the dark’ and ‘die’ in the ‘cold nothingness’.  But if like Villanelle, we have faith to ‘step out’ of our normalised selves, we too, might walk ‘across the canal like it was solid.’  And this canal is not just any canal, but one at the Rialto in Venice.  It is entirely in keeping with the metaficitional technique for our story to be set in such a carnivalesque atmosphere.  It is entirely in keeping with magical realism to utilise hybridity.  By introducing a ‘real’ place into the magical (fictional) world – we are yet again reminded that there might be multiple planes of reality.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

In the next paragraph, Winterson introduces another dimension of the discourse of (lesbian) passion – gender politics.  Here, we find yet another metafictional reminder that as readers, we stand between the narrator and the story she relates.  ‘This is what happened.’ Do we believe?  Should we believe?  After all, if Villanelle were not trustworthy, then why would she take us into her confidence and explain that actually, she had not ‘borrowed’ the soldier’s uniform, but ‘stolen’ it?   Yet it is ‘well after midnight’ at the ‘Casino’.  Here, anything can happen.  Here, things really do go bump in the dark.

In this sequence, Winterson uses variations of the word ‘play’ three times in quick succession.  Repetition hammers home her theme that to achieve insight, we must enter into the spirit of play.  Such an invocation is a common feature in postmodern fiction.   Are we, as readers, willing to take a chance and ‘play’?  After all, it is an ‘unusual’ wager.

Or is it?  If we (women) win, we get a man’s ‘nicely padded purse’ (money and all that it offers).  If we lose, we forfeit our ‘purse’ – our female sexuality – our passion – our selves.  With this example of metonymy, we are confronted with the quid-pro-quo aspect of gender politics.  Oddly, although this association might be unpleasant, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves prostitutes, we realise that there is some element of bargain in our own gender politics.

Could the price of ‘playing’ ever be too high?

‘I lost.’

‘Face down’ and ‘arms outstretched’ – Villanelle is used by the solider ‘like the crucified Christ.’ Such imagery reminds us of the price both men and women pay for redemption from the ‘original sin’ (reputably) committed by a woman.  However, if we (women) are clever, we still might turn this around.  Villanelle does. Because the ‘officer’ (who is no gentlemen) was ‘about (her) height’, our heroine is able to steal his ‘uniform’ and, in effect, change places with him.

Donning uniforms make us ‘uniform’, normalised.  I am told that English schoolchildren wear uniforms for just this purpose.  Further, uniforms endow us, for better or worse, with the stereotyped qualities of those who usually wear them.  We’re in the army now.  Soldiers wear ‘uniforms’.  Soldiers are men.  In the ‘uniform’ world, women love men not women.

 

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than a night?’

 

When her ladylove suggests that despite her uniform, Villanelle is not a ‘soldier’, she replies that ‘it’s fancy dress’.  This conjures images of a masked ball, during which we have an opportunity to dress up and play at being something other than ourselves.  Being other than ourselves allows for self-reflection.  First person narrative always raises issues as to narrator reliability.  In the same way that we listen to ourselves relating a story, we are aware our stories are filtered through our perceptions and prejudices.  This is wholly appropriate for us.  For even as we search for meaning, we remind ourselves that – in the end, it might all be fiction.

‘I began to feel like Sarpi,’ says Villanelle.  ‘That Venetian priest and diplomat, who said he never told a lie but didn’t tell the truth to everyone.’  With this example of hybridity, we are yanked back from the brink.  Google Sarpi.  He is not fiction.  Villanelle’s statement is also a paradox.  Oddly, it makes sense if we take the time to consider it.  After all, even though most of us would not consider ourselves liars, we realize that we do not always tell the truth.

Many times during the evening of eating, drinking, and playing ‘dice’, Villanelle is ‘prepared to explain’ but her ‘tongue thickened’ and her ‘heart rose up in self-defence.’  Who among us have not had a similar response when faced with the possibility of losing that for which we have a passion?  Might we be more like Villanelle than we’d like to believe and if we are, where does that leave us in regards to whom we’ve believed ourselves to be?

‘Could a woman love a woman for more than one night?’

 

Winterson’s emphasis on play as well as her playful writing style seems to suggest that not only will we will never have an answer, but also we ought not to care.  As with all postmodern works, the question posed by the author is never the same as that answered by the reader.  Each of us has her own reality and – as the saying goes – fact is stranger than fiction.

Names are power.

Words are power.

Who controls this power?

Not you.

Not Villanelle.

Not me.

‘I’m telling you stories.  Trust me.’

­­­­­­­­­


[1] Winterson has chosen to write this novel in the Romantic Tradition that, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, relates ‘improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting’. Her choice supports the purpose of postmodern literature, which means to examine the impact of words on our lives. According to Peter Otto (“Literary Theory,” An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age – British Culture 1776-1832, ed. Ian McCalman, Oxford University Press (1999), pp. 378-385), romance is intended to focus a reader’s ‘response to objects’ in such a way as to allow him to better ‘examine (his) passion.’  This is precisely the effect Winterson intends to achieve.

[2] In my chosen portion of text, Villanelle’s name is never disclosed.  However it is interesting to note that the poetic form, villanelle, is often used to express passion. The sledgehammer effect produced the two rhyming lines (aba) is potent and obsessive. Although Winterson does not utilize the villanelle form in my selected passage, her style is similarly repetitive and obsessive and I suspect that the name chosen for her heroine is no coincidence.

[3] While this section of the novel deals with lesbian – non-uniform – passion, other sections deal with other manifestations of passion.

“Our Tragic Universe” & the Fiction of Perfection – The Self-Help Industry Exposed

In Scarlett Thomas’ new novel, Our Tragic Universe, heroine Meg concludes that self-help books succeed by first making us feel bad about ourselves and then giving us the perfect fix.   It’s rather like Humpty Dumpty being pushed off a wall and broken so someone can make a fast buck putting him back together again.  According to Meg, the arenas in which we need help are endless:

“You could learn, from a book, how to snare someone with an ‘exclusive smile’, how to set the agenda for any conversation you wanted to have, how to be the ‘chooser’ rather than the ‘choosee’, how to become ‘magnetic’ and attract the people and objects you want, how to harness the power of ‘Screw you!”, how to read other people’s minds via their body language and also use your own body to communicate, and how to use ancient secrets of creativity to give your PowerPoint presentations more ‘zing’.”

Apparently this approach works because we’re all so eager to be ‘perfect’.   Just like a character’s situation at the end of a novel, we insist on our lives being as emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically neat and tidy as a ball of virgin yarn.

“The whole of Western society seemed to be turning itself into a reality TV show in which everyone was supposed to want to be the most popular, the most talented, the biggest celebrity.”

But what if this wasn’t what you really wanted?

What if instead of being a cultural King Midas, you wanted to be an anti-hero?  What if you did not desire riches, success, and syrupy romance straight from a fairy tale?   What if you just wanted to be a nice person – a good friend?  What if instead of spending your time making zingy PowerPoint presentations, you took up bird watching or knitting?

“…people who wanted to reject these ideas of perfection and individualistic heroism should get a pile of books that help them learn a new skill, or perhaps another language, not in order to become successful or fit or better, but just for the hell of it.”

If you did this, undoubtedly societal movers and shakers would write you off as hopeless – just not ‘with the program.’

But might some want more from  life than to be ‘programmed”?

I suggest that underneath our glossy exteriors a good many of us do.  Indeed fiction writers know their heroes and heroines can’t be too ‘perfect’.  Some flaw or weakness is mandatory for them to be lovable – to be someone with whom readers wish to relate.

So why do we want  fictional heroes to be imperfect while at the same time insisting on perfection for ourselves?

I suggest we give this paradox serious consideration or as Meg suggests, we run the serious risk of becoming little more than a fictional character for the entertainment – and profit –  of someone else.

Lessons to learn from Anthony Trollope

I just finished reading Anthony Trollope’s brilliant novel The Way We Live Now.

Although written in 1872, Trollope’s portrayal of the ultra-greedy businessman, Melmotte, has much to show us about the way we really do in fact live right now.  As another character comments, Melmotte is ‘a sign of degeneracy’, not the cause.

Not unlike bankers and (some) politicians today, Melmotte’s claim to fame was that he ‘manufactured’ money from issuing more and more (bad) debt.  In pursuing this career, he almost manages to crash the markets in the City of London.

The interesting thing is that rather than being the worldly and elegant gentleman he professes to be, in reality he’s a no-body from no-where trying to make the world believe he’s something that he’s not.

Perhaps a lesson to be learned is that ‘money doesn’t make the man’ and that such a lesson is as important today as it was in 1872.

So ladies and gentlemen, what should we make of this?