Astrology

The Makings of a Good Character – Point of View – Belief

BeliefEPoint of view shades and colours the way we see the world.

Have you ever heard or reacted to phrases like: “Life is unfair,” “You can’t fight City Hall,” “ All life is a game of chance,” “ You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?   These are all points of view. –  Syd Field – The Screen Writer’s Workbook.

As Carl Jung said, physical reality is just one kind of reality.  In this respect, if someone holds a belief (however possible of physical manifestation) then that belief  it is as real as anything else.

Character POV is that belief.

Your character’s point of view may be that the indiscriminate slaughtering of dolphins and whales is morally wrong because they are two of the most intelligent species on the planet, maybe smarter than men. Your character supports that point of view by participating in demonstrations and wearing T-shirts with Save the whales and dolphins on them. That’s an aspect of characterization. Syd Field – The Screen Writer’s Workbook.

Although there are many astrological aspects contributing to one’s POV, I suggest that the most powerful and accessible is through Jupiter.

Jupiter is our personal connection with the “divine plan”. – Liz Greene

Jupiter is the fire that connects you to the larger picture. – Darby Costello

Jupiter is the desire to view facts and events within a wider framework. – Karen Hamaker-Zondag

  • Jupiter in Aries – is on a crusade – save the world – save the whales – save everything – beliefs are passionate and held with such courage and conviction that it’s virtually impossible to persuade them elsewise.  You’re likely to find this character marching through the streets with placards or making a fiery speech in favour of Occupy Wall Street.  “I can and will fight city hall.”
  • Jupiter in Taurus – trusts in the beauty and abundance of the material world– especially when hard work and personal enterprise are concerned – good with finances – beliefs are unadventurous and must lead to tangible results – you may find this character a successful homemaker or helping start up businesses or organizing fundraisers for an art gallery or opera house.  “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”
  • Jupiter in Gemini – believes in the power of words and ideas – the only problem is that while gathering the evidence to support his beliefs, he has a tendency to get distracted.  Beliefs are aimed at furthering connections or  imparting information.  You’re likely to find this character as a stand-up comedian or award winning journalist or even a blogger who has an opinion on everything.  Beliefs tend to be idealistic and not necessarily intended to be realised.  “You won’t believe this one.
  • Jupiter in Cancer – believes in history and tradition.  Beliefs are aimed at preserving the family unit – giving help to those within the ‘extended family’ and receiving help in return.  The emphasis is on closeness – the shared experience.  This character is likely to be found in the caring professions – nursing, social work, or a family court judge.  Equally she may be a chef or even a nun. “Have some more – it’s good for you.”
  • Jupiter in Leo – is pulled toward anything that brings joy and meaning to others as well as to self – beliefs likely have a philanthropic bent – they aim to bring out the best in everyone – especially self.  You’re likely to find this character running a charity or campaigning for better schools in his neighbourhood or even selling ice cream at the sea shore. “Give and you shall receive.”
  • Jupiter in Virgo – concentrates on the little things – believes reward is not to be found in the big picture, but in the detail.  Beliefs tend to be reduced to a sense of duty, which must not be shirked.  You’re likely to find this character as the tiresome civil servant or tax collector who leaves no stone unturned.  Equally this character may an overseas relief worker or missionary schoolteacher.  “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”
  • Jupiter in Libra – is polite and politically correct – beliefs tend toward that which will bring beauty, justice, and harmony – the focus is the other – never on the self.  You’re likely to find this character as the wise judge, the diplomat smoothing over troubled waters in order to avoid war, or as a reformer advocating social improvements to bring some modicum of fairness to a world that is (regrettably) inherently unfair.  “There are two sides to every story.”
  • Jupiter in Scorpio – has an extraordinary depth of understanding of human nature which (sadly) may not always be used to the best ends – beliefs tend toward anything that gets to the bottom of things. Yet this character is likely to be very secretive and unwilling to share.  Thus this character will likely be found in solitary pursuits such as research or detective work or even as a psychologist or occultist.  “There’s always more than meets the eye.”
  • Jupiter in Sagittarius – is philosophic and idealistic – believes in man’s ability to move mountains through faith and hope – vision, trust, and intuition are the keys to a better life. You’re as likely to find this character in the hallowed halls of academia, a noted author, or a highly revered spiritual leader.  “Tomorrow- tomorrow – there’s always tomorrow.”
  • Jupiter in Capricorn – is constrained and conservative – beliefs (which tend to be dogmatic) must incorporate goals that aim toward achievement of something ‘real’ and of lasting worth.   Because of the always present need for maintaining social position and garnering respect, this character is likely to be highly visible in the business community or politics or church.  “Nothing a little elbow grease won’t fix.”
  • Jupiter in Aquarius – is focused on understanding through logic and science – beliefs (which are almost always dogmatic) are naturally idealistic and forward thinking – and usually aimed at improving humanity.  You’re likely to find this character as a political reformer, scientist, or mathematician.  He is the consummate absent minded professor or zanny individualist.  “There must be a better way.”
  • Jupiter in Pisces – has a penchant for spirituality and is easily influenced by dogma and piety.   Beliefs tend toward the expansion of universal values – peace on earth – good will toward men – compassion for those less fortunate – turn the other cheek.   They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions and this might be the by-word for a character with this placement.  She is likely to be found as a healer, psychic, well-meaning campaigner for the poor. Belief system may be hazy – hard to pin down much less exemplify.  “Please, let me help you.”
Astrology

The Makings of a Good Character- Individuation and the Art of Change

character-arc-1During the course of a novel or film, a good character needs to change.

We all want to be a better person.  Change, transformation, is a constant in our lives and if you can impel some kind of emotional change within your character, it creates an arc of behavior and adds another dimension to who he or she is. Syd Field – The Screenwriter’s Workbook

While there many paradigms through which you might view character arc change, the one that appeals most to me is based on the concept of Jungian ‘individuation’.

I will try to explain the term “individuation” as simply as possible. By it I mean the psychological process that makes of a human being an “individual”- a unique, indivisible unit or “whole man.” Carl Jung

While admittedly this journey to one’s destiny – or ‘true self’ – is a life-long process, it does move in fits and starts;   not all the phases occur chronologically.  They can overlap each other or run parallel.

The individuation process begins with becoming conscious of the Persona, the mask we take on in our every day life.[1] After this we become conscious of the Shadow, the repressed characteristics of the ego.[2] Then we become conscious of the Anima, the inner woman in each man, or the Animus, the inner man in each woman.[3] Then the image of the old wise man (the Conscious), or the old wise mother (the Unconscious) appears, and if the union of the two, or the Coniunctio, is successful the experience of the Self occurs.

In terms of psychological astrology, this process is well-characterized by what is referred to as ‘growing into your sun sign’.

Sun sign columns would be much more worthwhile if they began with the underlying premise that the Sun sign represents qualities which you need to build and develop in a constructive way in order to become who you uniquely are… Howard Sasportas – The Luminaries

This transition might be dramatically depicted by movement from the more negative to the more positive emotions associated with the character’s sun sign:

  • Aries               Bored–afraid–angry–eager–brave–enthusiastic
  • Taurus           Greedy–lethargic-stubborn–mellow–safe-comfortable
  • Gemini           Restless–nervous-curious-interested–informed–proficient
  • Leo                    Humiliated-defensive–wilful–playful–proud–self-assured
  • Virgo                Obsessive–skeptical–competent–modest–productive–helpful
  • Libra                Uncooperative–indecisive–dependent–balanced–engaged–pleasant
  • Scorpio           Vindictive–paranoid–wounded– vulnerable–passionate–powerful
  • Sagittarius    Disbelieving–righteous–benevolent–expansive–jovial–optimistic
  • Capricorn      Isolated–inadequate–anxious–determined–focused–successful
  • Aquarius        Aloof-rebellious–tolerant– altruistic – objective-open
  • Pisces               Guilty–passive–inspired–blissful–elated–compassionate

The emotional trigger for a successful transition from the negative to positive emotions is the Coniunctio which can be viewed astrologically as the successful harmonisation of one’s natal sun (representing conscious thought) and natal moon (representing unconscious instinct) – (See Liz Greene and Howard Sasportas, The Luminaries).  For some this will be easier than for others.ros3

For example, in my novel, The Curve of Capricorn, the sun sign of my heroine, Abby, is Capricorn.

Therefore one of her main (solar) purposes in life is to develop her Capricorn qualities: ambition, authority and determination to achieve and succeed.

True to form, throughout the first half of the novel, Abby’s Capricorn qualities are at the negative end of the spectrum; she feels isolated, inadequate, and anxious.  Accustomed to living in the shadow of her highly powerful and successful (and authoritarian) father, how could it be otherwise?  Achieving personal ambition and authority has never even been a possibility for Abby much less a realistic goal.

With Daddy dead and all that  for which she believes he’s has stood for in tatters, she realises it’s time for her to ‘step up to the plate’.  But a life on auto-pilot hasn’t prepared her for the challenges ahead and initially, instead of success she faces failure and despair.

In order to proceed, she must successfully cobble together (i.e. the Coniunctio) an integrated ‘Self’ from the ashes of her parent’s ruined relationship (symbolised by her natal sun and moon in hard aspect – the square).

Her challenge is to integrate that which she got from (1) her father (Sun in Capricorn) – the need to find enough stability in her outer life so that she can live authentically and not simply conform to societal norms and (2) her mother (Moon in Aries) – the need find the courage to stand up for a cause for the greater good and the conviction to succeed at it despite the personal cost.

If she’s successful, she can save her country as well as the man she loves.

However if she fails, all is well and truly lost.


[1] According to Jung, the Persona is a mask of the collective Psyche, a mask that only appears to have individuality.  In effect, it’s only a clever piece of playacting  – a compromise of the tension that naturally exists between the individual and the community – so that she only appears to fit in.

Astrologically the Persona is symbolised by the MC–IC axis  (4th–10th houses).  For my heroine, Abby, whose MC-IC axis involves Libra/Aries –  this means a constant struggle to find balance between autonomy and compromise.  While she appears (MC) to live in perfect harmony with others, in reality (IC) she has a strong need strong need for personal freedom and autonomy.

[2] Astrologically, the Ego is identified with Saturn which represents the boundaries and structures (both psychological and physical) we put in place in order to keep us whole and safe.  When one’s Saturn functions well, she is organised ad ‘together’ in pursing her goals for success.  When Saturn is not functioning well (the Shadow side), she may find herself beset with (often self afflicted) delays, limitations, blocks, and restrictions.  To the extent she perceives these as unfixable, the more she’ll procrastinate and the deeper she’ll sink into the melancholy that so often afflicts under-performing Capricorns.

[3]  According to Jung, the anima or animus is unconscious or true inner self of an individual (as opposed to the persona or ‘outer’ self).  In the unconscious of a man, the anima find expression as a feminine inner personality and manifests in his dreams as well as his attitudes towards women.  In a woman, the animus is the personification of her masculine tendencies.  As the archetypal masculine symbols within her unconscious, it likewise manifests in dreams and attitudes towards men .

In psychological astrology, (1) the anima is assigned to the eighth house (which represents the intense emotional experiences and encounters that will change us forever) and (2) the animus to the twelfth (which according to Jungian psychologist and astrologer Karen Hamaker-Zondag, is the ‘hidden power in the horoscope’).

My heroine Abby has Uranus in the 12th house and as such, her image of men is of movers and shakers – they shock, shatter, destabilise – for (hopefully) altruistic and humanitarian reasons.  What she doesn’t yet realise is that this is what she herself is meant to do.

Astrology

The Makings of a Good Character – Motivation

A good character is as important to good fiction as it is to a good life.

Because no matter how moving or clever or fast-paced the story – if you, dear reader, don’t find my characters both interesting and accessible, you won’t continue to read.

Character = Action = Motivation

Syd Field (The Screenwriter’s Workbook):

Great – it’s all about motivation – but how do you find what that is?

With astrology, that’s easier than it sounds.

When I create a character, I first draw up their natal (birth) chart– that way I can get a deep-down feel for who – and what – they are at their core.  Sure I made up their chart– I’m making them up too.  That doesn’t stop my character from possessing the ‘ring of truth’ that (hopefully) keeps you reading.

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Motivation = that ‘something’ (or bundle of ‘something’s’) that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviour –  that which your character wants, needs, or fears that drives the action.

Astrologically, I believe motivation is primarily symbolised by the placement and connections of three natal planets:

  1. Venus = that which your character ‘wants’ – finds pleasing, stimulating, rewarding, validating (affirms her sense of self worth) = Venusian energy is a very selfish energy as it operates through differentiating between self and another (“I’m prettier than she is…”) 
  2.  Moon = that which your character ‘needs’– finds comfortable, nurturing, necessary for continued life = Lunar energy is a very clingy, suffocating energy as it operates through symbiosis and fusion (“I’ll never leave you if you…”)
  3. Saturn = that which your character ‘fears’ – gives him the strength to carry on and establish the boundaries that keep him healthy and whole = Saturnine energy is very uncomfortable as it behaviourally reprograms us through shame and guilt (“You made such a fool of yourself, you won’t do that again soon…”)

Some common motivations associated with the twelve zodiac signs (each manifesting in it’s unique way- which is where ‘character’ really comes in):

  • Challenge = Aries, Capricorn, Scorpio, Cancer and Sagittarius
  • Curiosity = Gemini, Aquarius, Sagittarius, Virgo, and Pisces
  • Competition = Aries and Scorpio
  • Control = Scorpio, Taurus, Cancer, and Leo
  • Recognition/ Security = Capricorn, Taurus, Leo, and Cancer
  • Cooperation/Collaboration = Libra and Aquarius
  • Fantasy/Escape = Pisces
  • Revenge =  Scorpio
  • Reform = Aquarius

For example, Abby (the heroine in my new novel, The Curve of Capricorn) has:

  • Venus in Aquarius
  • Saturn in Libra
  • Moon in Aries

She wants justice (Libra and Aquarius) and forward thinking reform (Aquarius).

She needs challenge and competition (Aries).

But above all, she fears collapsing cultural cornerstones and the loss of not just relationship, but the possibility for true partnership where all the parts work synergistically as a whole (Libra).

And wouldn’t you just know it, it’s precisely that which she fears that Abby’s going to get.

Literature

Jane Austen and the Enlightenment

emmaHow much was the fiction of Jane Austen influenced by Enlightenment ideals?

Until recently, most scholars believed not much, if at all.  Indeed it has often been said that living in the countryside, Austen remained isolated from the great events of her time.  But this presumes that Austen did not read widely (which she did) and that she was not affected by what she read (which she was).

Given that the Enlightenment is quite possibly the most important intellectual, social, and cultural transformation of the Western world since the Middle Ages (and it was happening during Austen’s lifetime), it is reasonable to assume it influenced pretty much everyone including Jane Austen and that what influenced Austen would in some measure, influence her fiction.

Underlying Enlightenment ideals was Locke’s assertion that the mind is a blank slate receiving and ordering worldly sensations for the benefit of the individual.  With this, the focus shifts forward: the individual is valorised and self- interest legitimized- no longer is he encouraged to blindly follow established teachings (i.e. church, government, aristocracy).  Instead he’s to be the creator of his own meaning and truth.  This is to be accomplished through rational assessment and critical reason in order to decide for himself what course of action to take to achieve happiness.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to Locke and these Enlightenment ideals with a view toward demonstrating that her fiction was in large part, influenced by them.

In Persuasion, eight years of happiness is the price Anne Elliott pays for yielding to a noblewoman’s advice to break off her engagement with Capt. Wentworth.   But despite the pain caused, Anne determines that she made the right decision. “I was right in submitting to her (Lady Russell)… I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up because I should have suffered in my conscience.”

This clarifies how uncompromisingly Anne supports coolheaded rationality.  She believes that however right her feelings might have been, it was not justifiable to follow them when she was unable to rationally defeat Lady Russell’s objections. It is key that Anne’s choice was not made Lady Russell, but by herself and that it was not blindly made.  In keeping with Enlightenment principles, Anne rationally assessed her options and only allowed herself to be persuaded by Lady Russell’s advice when convinced it would bring her more happiness in long term.

Austen portrays Anne Elliott as superior because she questions the social conventions and beliefs that others simply take for granted.  While her family considers it a social necessity to keep their noble lifestyle despite mounting debt, Anne suggests they do without servants, horses, and various vanities to save money.  Anne’s standards are not those expected of her social class – indeed they are more focused on personal accountability and duty than on social status and pedigrees.   Undoubtedly she has forged these standards for herself for given her family, they were not likely to be hereditary.

Pride and Prejudice is written from Elizabeth Bennett’s point of view – an excellent literary device for expressing Enlightenment individuality.  Elizabeth is nothing if not individualistic.  She demonstrates (1) a demand for self-expression (strong opinions that she is not afraid to voice –Lady Catherine is seriously taken aback when Elizabeth defends her younger sisters for being already ‘out’ in society) and (2) the free exercise of personal will (she walks to Netherfield Park alone to visit her ill sister even though this is criticized by Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s sisters).

It is tempting to put her behaviour down selfishness or silliness.  But however self-focused, Elizabeth never disregards social rules with the same abandon, as does her younger sister Lydia.  This too, is a demonstration of an important Enlightenment ideal.

In his essay What is Enlightenment?, Immanuel Kant distinguishes between the use of reason (1) in public affairs (expressing one’s opinion as a scholar), which must always be free, and (2) in private affairs (conducted in the interests of the community), which understandably often “requires a certain mechanism…an artificial unanimity.”  That Elizabeth makes the same distinction and cares as much about community as she does about herself is made clear during her visit to Pemberly when she comments on Mr Darcy’s importance to his community: “as a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!” It appeals to her that he uses his power well.

While Anne exercises reason to ensure her happiness and Elizabeth balances her self-interest with community demands, Emma Woodhouse, heroine of Emma, does neither.

Emma, “handsome, clever, and rich,” is disposed to believing she has more capacity for personal authority and self-expression than she has.  Indeed in her view, she has enough to share as she undertakes to “improve” her new friend Harriet and “form her opinions and her manners” with disastrous consequences.  Such disregard for another’s rights pursue her own happiness is not in keeping with Enlightenment ideals.  Neither is Emma’s lack of capacity for self-reflection.   It is not until Mr. Knightley upbraids her behaviour that she considers she may have been rude to her unfortunate neighbour, Mrs Bates.  Even then, Emma “tried to laugh it off.”  That Emma’s assumed position in the community is threatened by her meddling and rudeness, becomes obvious when she realises she must ‘submit to stand second to Mrs Elton…” at the ball.

While Emma might be interpreted to support that Austin’s fiction was not much influenced by Enlightenment ideals, it could also be interpreted as a savvy foreshadowing of modern criticism of such ideals.  By demonstrating the damage done when Emma’s rampant individualism is not properly balanced with legitimate needs of community, Austin may have been pointing to that which we understand today – unchecked individualism leads to an empty, solitary self and painful lack of meaningful involvement with others.  Indeed such understanding has led many to call for a shift backwards to where community is valorised at the expense of self-interest and individuality.

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Bibliography

 

Austen, Jane.  Emma.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2004.

Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003.

Israel, Jonathan I. Democratic Enlightenment (Introduction).  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Kant, Immanuel.  “What is the Enlightenment?” (1-7). The Portable Enlightenment Reader. ed by Issac Karmnick.  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Knox-Shaw, Peter.  Jane Austen and the Enlightenment.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Kramnick, Issac.  The Portable Enlightenment Reader (Introduction).  New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

 

 

 

 

Ethics

Feminism and Jane Austen

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

becoming-janeThis has not been the traditional view.  Indeed it was not until the 1960’s that Austen’s name was associated with feminism in any widespread way.

Although there are as many faces of feminism as one cares to discover, if the works of Austen are to be fairly evaluated, it should be in terms of feminism as it was understood in her time.  To do otherwise (however tempting), would be anachronistic.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to the goals of ‘Enlightenment feminism’ which asserted that men and women should share the same moral code in regards to conduct, feelings, and responsibility.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine flawed.    In economic terms, Emma Woodhouse passes with flying colors; an heiress of £30,000 is not easily dismissed.  But the citizens of Highbury do not value money nearly as much as they do character and in this regard the imperious Miss Woodhouse must learn that she has ‘been used to despise (Highbury) rather too much’.   In other words, Emma’s moral code is lacking and requires remedial work.

But instead of undertaking to improve herself of her own violation, Emma is instructed by Mr Knightly who appears to believe himself the more morally capable of the two (‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.  Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.’)

Not surprisingly, it is only when Emma becomes all that Mr Knightly would have her be, that he realizes he is in love with her for we all know the story of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with (and married) the statue he carved.  We have only to look at how Mr Knightly’s view of Harriet changes (the former ‘fair lady’ become ‘the foolish girl’ and ‘a greater simpleton’) when by refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, she fails to conform to Knightly’s norm.  Luckily for Emma, she had learned her lessons well and so ‘what did she say’ when Knightly declares himself?  ‘Just what she ought, of course’ for ‘a lady always does.’

In Emma, although women may have been portrayed as capable of moral equality, they were also portrayed as incapable of forging a moral code of their own.

Likewise, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with ‘all her faults of ignorance and timidity’ must be carefully tutored to the standards of her cousin Edmund.

Although Miss Price is oft portrayed as a plucky feminist who finally has the courage to speak her own mind (by refusing to marry Henry Crawford as Sir Thomas Bertramwould have her do), we who have followed her long, steady progress with Edmund know she did not reach that pinnacle on her own.

The scene in the East room provides the perfect example.  One morning Fanny escapes to her ‘nest of comforts’ in order ‘to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel’.  When in the flesh Edmund arrives to obtain ‘her opinion’ on ‘an evil of such magnitude as must , if possible, be prevented’, he begins by voicing his own.  When finished with his soliloquy, he asks Fanny whether she sees ‘it in the same light’.  When she has the temerity to say ‘no’, he recommends that she ‘think it a little over’ for ‘perhaps you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may’ arise.

When Edmund’s love interest, Mary Crawford, speaks her own mind by refusing to agree with him regarding her brother, Henry’s, adultrous behavior, Mary is out and Fanny is in.  ‘Loving, guiding, protecting her (Fanny), as he (Edmund) had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind so great a degree formed by his care’, it should be little surprise that by end of the story he’s fallen in love with her  and ‘acknowledged’ her mental superiority.

However, in Northanger Abby, Catherine Morland, arguably the most feminist of Austen’s heroines, receives a very different moral education – that of first-hand experience (as we might expect with a man).

As a child, Catherine is left largely to her own devices allowing her to early on rely on her own judgment.   Later she navigates Bath with little or no outside guidance and moves on to her next adventure afflicted only by her love of Gothic novels and vivid imagination.   Convinced that General Tilney has murdered his wife, like Pandora she finally commits the unpardonable sin and opens that ‘forbidden door’.

But even then when she receives a dressing down from her love interest,  Henry Tilney (‘consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained’ and ‘remember that we are English’ and ‘Christians’), she is asked by him to not to do or think as he would ,but instead to ‘consult your own understanding’ (which she does to her shame).

Once her ‘visions of romance were over’,  she ‘was completely awakened.’  Catherine goes on to win the heart of the man she loves and to ‘begin perfect happiness at’ the age of eighteen, which as Austen reminds us is ‘to do pretty well.’

If the only goal of Enlightenment feminism was that men and women should share the same moral code, then Austen can be said to have wholeheartedly supported this through her fictional characterizations.

However if we look to the basic premise underlying Enlightenment feminism – that women, not having been denied powers of reason, must have the moral status appropriate to ‘rational beings’, formed in the image of a rational God – we must reach a different conclusion.  At least two of the three of Austen’s heroines examined were apparently presumed by the men in their lives as capable not of forging their own moral code, but only of regurgitating that of their lovers.

Book reviews

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).

Book reviews

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.

Literature

Literary Criticism/ in practice for a test

St Kevin and the Black Bird / by Seamus Heaney (1996)

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

_

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to nest.

_

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

_

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

*

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

_

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

_

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,

‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

_

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

___________________________________________

Literary Criticism

The following is offered as a draft criticism for the above poem/ as my classmates and I prepare for our upcoming U Oxford/ Creative Writing exam / comments gratefully appreciated:

Heaney’s St Kevin and the Blackbird begins with a saint kneeling – arms outstretched in his narrow cell.   One of his upturned palms is out the window.  This invites blackbird to lay in it and settle down to nest.  St Kevin feels the warm eggs and small breast of the bird and finds himself linked with the network of eternal life.  He is moved to pity because now he must remain in this position until the blackbird’s young have grown up and flown away.  This leads to an intense self-scrutiny where he questions whether he’s even imagined being himself at all.  He examines each part of his aching body and then slowly slips out of himself into the solitude of prayer.

This poem is about the tension of man as a part of the material world (nature) and his more divine self that is shared only with God.  It elaborates on the pain of incarnation and the man’s innate yearning to be at one with the divine.  In the end, it may even suggest a religious or mystical experience through which one senses one has connected with God.

The use of free verse contributes to the overall sense of the search for order and place.    That each stanza consists of three lines reinforces the notion that such order is to be found in the Trinity – traditionally the three faces of the divine.  The use of the specific name of St Kevin (as opposed to an anonymous seeker) gives an overall sense of reassurance.  We know whom we’re dealing so in the end everything will turn out fine.  The first line in the first stanza (where Kevin and the blackbird are introduced) is end-stopped.  This shapes the initial feeling that nature (of which man is a part) is all that there is.  However the next two lines– are run-on-lines giving the impression of expansion beyond that which man incarnate is able to physically touch.  The cell is ‘narrow’ (the word cell is repeated to emphasize the sense that incarnation is a prison) yet St Kevin does his best to escape.  Because he’s kneeling, we know he means to accomplish this through supplication.  Thus man’s horizons broaden when he appeals to that within him, which is divine.

One thing leads to another as the run-on-line into the 2nd stanza suggests.  St Kevin has only partially managed to set himself free.  Only one ‘turned-up’ palm is ‘out the window’.  The words ‘stiff’ and ‘crossbeam’ reinforce the feeling of man’s frustration to be in his body – separate from God.  However when the blackbird (birds are symbolic of messengers from heaven) ‘lands’ on his palm there’s some suggestion that through nature man can find his desired communion with God.    The messenger from heaven (the blackbird) finding himself comfortable in the ‘’palm’ of a man (usually we find man in the hands of God rather than the other way around), ‘lays’ and ‘settles’ to ‘nest’.  This is the beginning of something that will grow with time.  The end-stopped line at the end of this stanza also suggests that St Kevin’s yearning has found temporary rest.  All is in order when man and the heavens are at one.

The next stanza stirs things up again with the use of run-on-lines.  There’s an uncomfortable contrast struck between the feeling of ‘warm eggs’ and ‘claws’.   Now Kevin (a regular person like you and me no longer referred to as St) is ‘linked’ with the ‘network’ of ‘eternal life’.  This suggests that by his experience he’s fallen in status.  While the experience feels ‘warm’, it’s also unpleasant.  In a run-on-line into the next stanza we find indeed the experience in uncomfortable enough to have moved him to ‘pity’.  This a strange word to choose.   The cause of the ‘pity’ is that now Kevin must ‘hold his hand’ ‘like a branch’ until the baby birds have grown and flown away.  I would have thought Kevin would feel ‘anger’ instead of ‘pity’.   That he doesn’t suggests he’s already overcome some of the emotions of man and transformed them into something more (Christian-based) divine.  A end-stopped line finishing the stanza give a sense of finality.  At this point we get a sense that everything is so static that something must give soon.

After the break, come the questions. The tone has clearly changed.   A transition of some kind is in process.  Like Kevin, we struggle to make sense of where we are and where we’re headed next.   There’s very little punctuation from now through the end of the poem except for the question marks.   This adds to the feeling of searching and being lost.  Despite the lack of end-stopped lines, the sense and grammatical structure of the lines don’t really run over.   It’s abrupt.  Not continuous.  So how and where will we find our place?  Perhaps we won’t.  Perhaps everything is shutting down?  Kevin ‘imagines’ ‘being’ Kevin.  He ‘forgets’.  His fingers are ‘sleeping’.  He feels his body (his ‘hurting forearms’) yet he has thoughts of stillness (even perhaps death) – ‘shut-eyed’, ‘blank’ and ‘underearth’.

Equally however he could be moving into a trance that is often the precursor to a mystical or religious experience.   This is suggested by the words ‘distance in his head’ which could point to an out-of-body experience.   He is definitely ‘praying’ while at the same time slipping away – his body ‘entirely making the prayer (as opposed to his mind).   Also there ‘forgotten’ is repeated 3 times – suggesting that he is deep in meditation (or the religious or mystical experience) and thus has stepped away from ‘self’.  The sense of slipping away is further reinforced by ‘love’s deep river’, which is winding further and further away.  The poem concludes with Kevin having completed the journey he commenced at the beginning.   At least in one sense, he’s no longer man incarnate and separate from God.

In many ways this is a soothing poem.  Although the use of free verse and many run-on-lines suggest displacement and ‘agony’, the use of the 3-line stanza structure reassures us that order is in the end, preserved.  Thus the poem itself creates a safe space for Kevin to let go of ‘self’ and join with God.   This is skilfully accomplished through using of a heavenly messenger (a bird) coming down to Kevin while at the same time Kevin moves up to God.  The circuit is complete.

___________________________

Literature

Lightness of Being/ Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’

The Ouroboros, a dragon that bites its tail, i...
Image via Wikipedia

Milan Kundera opens his celebrated novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by examining Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’.

What, asks Kundera, might it mean if everything we do, think, and say recurs ad infinitum – ad nauseum – throughout the eternal black holes of time and space?

What if, contrary to the dogma of most religions, life weren’t a dress rehearsal?  What if the mistakes we make in the here and now were never going to be made ‘right’ on some dim, distant redemption day?

Would the knowledge that you had no second chance weigh you down like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board?  Or would it make you savor life, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche believed, as if it were a precious, precocious art form?

I’m a firm believer that what one says about something (especially if it’s controversial in any way) tells more about them than about that which they have commented upon.

Keeping that in mind, on the question of ‘eternal return’ I throw in my towel with Existentialism.   I accept that the question Kundera and Nietzsche have raised is not whether God (in whatever shape or form) really exists, but why it is that one chooses to believe either way.

To me, the need for any form of escapism from the joys and sorrows of life as experienced is rooted in fear, resentment, and bad conscience.  Be honest.  How far wrong can anyone go if he or she is prepared to live with the result of his or her choices throughout eternity?  In my view, to take action as if you’ve anything less than total commitment to life as experienced is a cop-out to the fullest degree.

Kundera reminds us that Nietzsche believed the idea of ‘eternal return’ to be the heaviest of burdens.  If we can’t or won’t carry that burden, then it only makes sense we’ll invent some way to cast off the significance of our lives leaving us light as a bird, free to fly straight to heaven.  Do not pass ‘Go’ – do not collect $200.  Who cares?  It’s only a game…

“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.  Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”

Isn’t the real question then not as Hamlet suggests ‘to be or not to be’, but instead ‘when and where are we committed to being’?

Kundera frames our dilemma nicely.

“What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?  Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ.  He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being.  One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative.  We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?”

I choose weight.  Which do you choose and more revealing – why?

Art

When is Fiction Art and Why Does it Matter?

Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable.  Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.

Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.

Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their  relative worth.  This would lead to impossible questions about morality and  religion.

Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature).  This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part,  psychologically defined.

If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed?  Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that  enhance understanding of the human condition.  But is this enough?

I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives.  Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy.  He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.

To accomplish this is a tall order.  It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing.   It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being.  Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.

I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art.  Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.

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