Global Lit.

December 22nd, 2010

Final Blog

Posted by mea1234 in Uncategorized

So some of you may or may not know that the majority of this semester was, for me, spent bed ridden and miserable.  4 herniated disks were discovered in my lower back, causing the past few months to be extremely challenging for me physically.  As luck would have it, I was enrolled in this course, a global literature course which consisted mainly of blogging.  Although when the semester began, I like many of you other functioning bi-ped’s, questioned whether or not I would “have the time” to work, complete all of my other course work (6 classes in total), read all of the assigned works for this class and be able to maintain a blog page (something I had not done yet in my college career). In the end,  I actually looked forward to these blogs as a relief from the realities of my own situation. Being able to lose myself in some of these works and having the opportunity to blog about my thoughts was a welcomed distraction. And the most interesting part of experiencing the “western canon”, or as this course describes it “global literature”, under these circumstances was that, aside from the class blogs, I had access only to my own opinion and interpretation of the works we read in 255:  Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness”, William Butler Yeats (selected poems), T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land”, Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”, William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”, Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”, Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father”, Junior Diaz’s “Drown”, Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior”.  This is the main way that my encounter with the “western canon” differed from that of my classmates.  So then, how did I feel in the end, had my venture in to the canon exposed me to a compendium of the greatest works of artistic merit?

Some of the questions I asked myself when producing this final piece: What is the “global literature canon”? What should be included on this list?  Why?  What goes on that list??  Can we honestly say that they are the worlds greatest books??  or that these are “the” stories worth reading?? One of the main objections to a canon of literature is the question of authority, who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching, so then who should? Is the whole idea of the canon out dated?? Should we be reading  “books written mainly by dead white European males”, that may not, “represent the viewpoints of many in contemporary societies around the world”, as Allan Bloom (1987) suggests?  While I will attempt to answer these questions, a difficult task to undertake, one thing that I can assert is, that undoubtedly, studying how literature is created and testing claims for its place in the canon makes us better readers, and hopefully makes us more aware of the writers choices, the strategies guiding them, and what kind(s) of beautiful or ugly effects it produces as it unfolds.

One of the things I admired about the list of assigned works for Eng255, was the fact that we were not only reading the work of a few dead white guys, our list included several female writers as well, and authors stemming from many different origins. While we tended to some of the more typically expected writers such as Eliot and Conrad, our list was perhaps more diverse than some of the standard lists offered by other universities/professors.  Another aspect I really enjoyed is related to the two works in which we opened up the semester with.  First we read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” and followed it up with Chinua Achebe’s essay “An Image of Africa: Racism in Heart of Darkness”.  This was a fun exercise because we were able to be exposed to a work which has been highly regarded as part of the canon and at the same time introduced to a direct criticism of that work. I think that this part of the course worked extremely well for many of us in that it, from day one, made us think harder about what it means to be considered significant and by whom in the literary world.  The debate which surrounds these two works was one that I happily dove into.

Something else which was exposed in the indulging of these works was the absolute strangeness of T.S. Elliot’s “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”.  My first attempt at reading “The Wasteland” was one that I would love to forget; I struggled through it and when I finally reached the end I sat scratching my head wondering if what I had just experienced was “for real!?!?”.  However, after my second, third, and yes even forth attempts at deciphering this Da Vinci code, I was able to find some meaning if I looked at each verse as an individual, rather than trying to view the work as having an overall connection or cohesiveness.  For example In section II. A Game Of Chess, the dialogue which occurs between a man and a women who are seemingly trapped within a relationship where they’re “pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door” (ll.138).   They’re only playing this game of chess to pass the boredom and time, what a sad and joyless life.  In the same way that the high society women is described as being smothered and imprisoned by her riches and belongings, this women seems to smother her lover to the point that he doesn’t even care to engage in dialogue with her.  So much so that in ll.110-139 she is basically talking to herself, he’s hardly interested in her rambling.  The language used with in this section points to a dualism between death by dehydration or a lack of water and that of death by drowning (the recurring reference to the drowned Phoenician sailor-the man with pearls for eyes).

When I bought all the books for this class, one that had stuck out to me was “Persepolis”.  It first jumped out at me in a visual way, I noticed that instead of words on the page, comic like strips with illustrations accompanied the text.  Initially I thought I had made a mistake, could this really be on an upper level English course reading list? Well it didn’t take me long to realize the value of the child like looking book and in the end it became the story in which I felt I gained the most insight and exposure from (although I would put “The Woman Warrior” on that list as well). Marjane Satrapi’s life story, beginning with details of growing up during a tumultuous time in Iran’s history, felt like an effortless read; not an easy task for a book with more “subtext” than actual text.  The words on the page were short and concise, much like the mind of the child narrator, 10 year old Marji, yet the topics addressed were  radical,  sad,  political, religious, often intense, and always surprising to a “Westerner” such as myself.  I imagine my experience of reading this for the first time, as I had little knowledge of the Iranian revolution prior to doing so, much like Marji’s experience. As she describes the shock and confusion of what is happening to the space around her, to her world as she knows it, as things are revealed  by her parents, friends or teachers, and even as she’s questioning all these things and more, I too share that with her.  Marji’s story belongs on this “list/canon” not necessarily because she is the most astute or learned writer, but rather because she is able to expose the inner workings of a society which few truly know about and through her experiences, as she discovers how to adapt and grow in an ever changing world (both in Iran and the US) we get as globalized sense of her and, perhaps, if we internalize it enough, of ourselves.

Faulkner’s “The Sound and The Fury” was another work which was complicated to sort out the first read through.  I enjoyed the “stream of consciousness” style of writing, as I am a psychology/English double major and have encountered this idea many times in my psychology studies.  While fascinating to try and dissect the different states of minds of our characters, it did pose an obstacle to try and read. It was often difficult to decipher what was really happening since the narrator changed from section to section, each offering a unique perspective and interpretation. What I will say is that I think, in some ways, the intertwined web of stories metaphorically offered a “globalized” look into a time and place.  For this reason I think it was a worthy choice!

December 3rd, 2010

The Woman Warrior

Posted by mea1234 in Uncategorized

“The real punishment was not the raid swiftly inflicted by the villagers, but the family’s deliberately forgetting her.”

Kingston reflects on her aunt’s story and the implications and significance of it. She concludes that the real lesson is not how the “No Name Woman” dies ( that is by drowning herself and her newborn after giving birth in a pigsty); but rather, why she was forgotten.  Kingston goes on to suggest that the act of writing out the story her mother tells serves as an act of remembrance to the No Name Woman. Because Kingston cannot ask about her unnamed aunt, she invents her own fantasies about why her aunt gave in to her forbidden passions. Kingston convinces herself that the baby was probably a girl(and as such would already have been considered practically useless to society, a theme that reappears throughout) and her aunt decided to kill her baby and herself in order to spare the child a life without family or purpose. At the end of the chapter, Kingston imagines her aunt as a lonely, wandering ghost, begging for scraps from the gifts given to other ghosts by their loving relatives.

[My mother] said I would grow up a wife and a slave, but she taught me the song of the warrior woman, Fa Mu Lan. I would have to grow up a warrior woman.

The struggle of Kingston’s aunt, is likened to the struggle of Kingston herself, who is attempting to make sense of the old customs and traditions (which she knows only from her mother) in an extremely different country. The story of Fa Mu Lan provides an alternative to the traditional Chinese beliefs. Kingston’s use of fantasy is what allows her to imagine herself as a warrior.  To be able to envision oneself in a position, enriches the chances of it happening.  She is a Chinese female, struggling to define herself in a place where the old traditional ways are esteemed by the elders (that is her mother and those in the old country) and the new forward ways put forth by this new/different society.  Role reversal and gender bending plays a role in many different aspects of the story, symbolizing in many instances her need and want to do “those things that men do”, rejecting her traditional role of womanhood.  Some examples: how Kingston’s husband in the fantasy leaves battle to return home and care for her son, how the men conscripted in the army are described as “lowly as slave girls,” or how ladies with bound feet go on to form a mercenary army.

The significance of Kingston’s fantasy is not that it transcends time and space, but that it transcends the rigid customs and traditions with which she grew up.Kingston is not ready to take on the role of mother or wife and rejects the limitations placed on women by both society and her parents. Rebelliously she burns food and refuses to clean dishes. She is repulsed by Chinese women who are entirely dependent on men, whose feet are symbolically bound by their role as mothers and wives. Still, she cannot escape the power of tradition, “the ghosts that still haunt her”, and is envious of those who, like Fa Mu Lan, are “loved enough to be supported.”What, then, is the point of Kingston’s fantasy? The last few paragraphs of the chapter compare the powers Kingston does have, her words, to the powers of Fa Mu Lan. Like the sky sword created out of thin air, Kingston’s words have only as much power as she can give them. The implication is that her words can poke holes through stereotypes. In this way Kingston can become a new sort of “female avenger,” one who can give birth to new ideas, not just babies, one who can also tear down her enemies as a fierce warrior woman.

Maxine Hong Kingston

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