20 April 2012

Ideas for Classes

Classes I'd like to teach, someday.

ENGL480: Labelmaker
Kierkegaard famously said, "Label me, and you negate me," referring to the obliterating power of categorization on a person's individuality.  Much of contemporary literary theory is focused on genres and labels, such as feminist, post-colonial, fantasy, or postmodern.  This course will explore the power and danger inherent in such labels, and the associated expectations.  Primary texts will include Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union as a work of counter-historical fiction, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar as a feminist text, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit as a children's book and fantasy, and Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as a political and science fiction book.  A heavy engagement with critical theory will also demand an examination of the work of Edward Said, Julia Kristeva, and other prominent theorists.

ENGL353: Matryoshka
Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Jose Luis Borges' short stories "Pierre Menard, author of Don Quixote" and "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", and Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, as works of deliberate obfuscation that function as larger puzzles. The reader's initial expectations are part of the author's plan of misdirection, eventually being turned around to a surprising final conclusion.  There are dangers and advantages in this approach, but it can turn a narrative into a metatextual game, as the reader's uncertainty and gradual realizations are anticipated by a careful inlaid plan.  The course will attempt to ascertain the mechanics of such writing, discovering the method by which the author builds their maze.

ENGL221: Grand Theft Classic
This course explores the liberal borrowing and rewriting in which playwrights have indulged from time immemorial, focusing on Aeschylus' The Libation Bearers, Seneca's Thyestes, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Joseph Addison's Cato, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Les Mouches.  Seneca stole Aeschylus' dramatic conventions.  Shakespeare stole Seneca's plot.  Addison stole Seneca's characterization.  And Sartre stole almost the whole of Aeschylus' play.  What is the line between tribute and theft?  Can there be any true writing, or is there only rewriting?

ENGL314: Wikiliterature
The essence of scholarship is the determined expansion and dissemination of knowledge, but in a fluid and uncertain environment, can any work of reference be said to be "finished."  "Wikiliterature" will examine unfinished texts, edited texts, and ambiguous texts in order to decipher the gap between an author's intentions and his results.  Special attention will be paid to the various contradictory versions of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the metatextual ideas of Jose Luis Borges, and the critical theory of reader-response.  Students will also spend time learning how to contribute to Wikipedia, a contemporary example of a fluid text.

19 April 2012

"Poet to Bigot," Langston Hughes

I have done so little
For you,
And you have done so little
For me,
That we have good reason
Never to agree.

I, however,
Have such meagre
Clutching at a
While you control
An hour.

But your hour is
A stone.

My moment is
A flower.

17 April 2012

Hemingway's Garden of Eden

Spoilers ahead for those who haven't read the book.

The more I study Hemingway, the more I think that his Garden of Eden is one of my favorites.  Not many people agree - this novel was only about half-finished at the time of Hemingway's death, and I am virtually the only person to consider the result of the posthumous editing to be worthy of inclusion next to The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, or Hemingway's other great works.  I do have good reasons, though - they just require a lot of explanation.

Garden of Eden tells the story of David Bourne and his wife Catherine as they honeymoon on the French Riviera, lazing on beaches and drinking in cafes.  David, a writer, spends much of his time working on some short stories, but becomes increasingly distracting by his wife's growing instability.  Catherine is obsessed with androgyny, and her preoccupation with gender identity and her jealousy of David's writing steadily grow worse.  Catherine invites a young Spanish woman named Marita into their marriage and marriage-bed, but the sexual role-playing in which they indulge goes awry when David - repulsed by Catherine's growing madness - falls in love with Marita.  At the climax of the book, Catherine burns every last scrap of David's writing and flees, leaving her husband to pair off with Marita while she goes to seek help.

Hemingway and first
wife Hadley Richardson.
(J.F.K Library collection)
Part of the reason why I love this book is that it was obviously so deeply meaningful to Hemingway.  The burning of the papers that occurs at the end is obviously a reference to Hemingway's own loss in 1922, when his first wife Hadley Richardson Hemingway packed a valise with all of his work (even the copies) and lost it on the way to Geneva.  I don't believe Hemingway ever really got over this trauma, and shades of it informed all his writing about tragedy during his career.

Hemingway at eighteen months.
(J.F.K. Library collection)
Further, Hemingway was fascinated with androgyny himself.  Obviously, we can only speculate on his own personal experiences, but it is known that his mother dressed him as a girl until the age of ten, a practice no longer as common at the turn of the century, and maybe central to his lifelong hatred of his mother ("that bitch").  The games that Catherine and David play - tanning to the same tone, cutting and styling their hair the same, and dressing the same - are all ones that are touched upon in other stories by Hemingway.  In Garden of Eden, the intended central metaphor of the text is that you can never return to Eden once you have tainted it: Catherine's reckless sexual experimentation ruins an idyllic paradise-existence, and that cannot be undone.  But it is my belief that this metaphor fails, with another unintentionally taking its place: there is no earthly unflawed Garden of Eden, and an attempt to build one from ignorance will fail.

The main reason why I love Garden of Eden, though, is the character of Catherine herself.  Vivid, responsive, and powerful, she is one of the few Hemingway female characters that is an active and intelligent force against the protagonist.  Indeed, her only companions in that sense are The Sun Also Rises Lady Brett Ashley and For Whom the Bell Tolls' Pilar.  But whereas Lady Ashley can only be a friend to the embittered Jake Barnes (thanks to his war wound), and Pilar is disgusted and superior to a husband that has lost his dignity with cowardice, Catherine is a full partner both in their marriage and in the story.  She pushes for what she wants, seeks closure for emotional conflict, and emphatically refuses to be a mere accessory.  Even the fact of her instability and her final cruelties don't sully her in my eyes: Catherine doesn't read like a truly insane woman, but simply as a woman out of her time and place.  I don't mean that in a progressive "nowadays being bisexual is okay" sort of way, but rather that the beach with David is simply too small for her.  It always seemed to me that troubled, vibrant Catherine would find her own world, elsewhere.

As described in Robert E. Fleming's 1989 paper, "The Endings of Hemingway's Garden of Eden," the original manuscript was three times as long as the published text before Scribner editor Tom Jenks began cutting.  Among the pages that were eliminated were a whole subplot involving another couple, Barbara and Andy, who engage in the same games as David and Catherine and go down the same road.  Barbara eventually commits suicide, unable to handle her shattered life.  One of the possible alternate endings of the text was a final scene, many years later, of David and Catherine back together and back on the same beach.  Fleming describes the manuscript:

David and Catherine's relationship has become a parody of the one they shared in the early pages of the novel, furthering the theme that the discovery of evil makes it impossible to dwell in the Garden of Eden. Other manifestations of the lost Eden are evident in this ending. David rubs oil into Catherine's breasts, a lover's action in the early chapters but a nurse's ministration in this ending.
Catherine is broken and sad, forgetful of their life and having difficulty functioning, and at the close of this alternate ending she extracts from David a promise to commit suicide with her when she can no longer manage.  Polished up and finished, what a remarkable thing this might have been!  Fleming rightly points out that it would be more in keeping with Hemingway's other endings, which are universally dour, than the published version which features a new, happy couple of David and Marita, and a retreating Catherine.  But even more this would be a magnificently tragic statement about relationships and in keeping with that central metaphor I see in the book: two people - even broken people - can work to build a flawed paradise in a flawed world.  Terribly sad, but terribly poignant!

Hemingway in Cuba, 1960.
(J.F.K. Library collection)
It would have been impossible to actually publish these passages, unfortunately, because by all accounts they simply do not make sense in their unfinished state.  A guiding rule of publishing for Hemingway's posthumous editors (ostensibly, anyway) has always been never to add, but only to subtract.  With that rule in mind, there was nothing to do but cut away all that was unfinished and all the cruft that didn't work in the main plot.  But I think that the final Garden of Eden, if Hemingway had ever managed to finish it, would have been much more than just one of my favorite things he wrote.  It might have been his best work of all.

15 April 2012

Unchanged Game

Tax season is here, and various groups have had to disclose their spending.  Obama has released his tax return and Romney has pledged to release his... someday, anyway.  SarahPAC, Sarah Palin's political action committee, has likewise had to release information about their expenditures.  And it's an ugly thing to see.
Sarah Palin’s political action committee raised $388,000 in the first three months of the year, but it spent $418,000 and didn’t give a dime to any candidates — which is the purported purpose of the PAC.
Instead, Sarah PAC spent $255,000 on fundraising and a small team of political consultants that Palin has continued to support even as she receded from the political spotlight during the heat of the GOP presidential primary. It also appears to have spent $19,000 on a video rebutting the HBO film “Game Change.”
If you're a SarahPAC donor, then you must be feeling pretty swindled right now. You donated to Sarah Palin, conservative fire-brand and vocal defender of the little guy, and she spent every dime - and then some! - on personal glorification.

Most of this makes sense: Sarah Palin is a grifter, after all, so it's not surprising when she hustles some chumps. But her $19,000 video does not make sense.

HBO's Game Change, a movie about the 2008 campaign that focuses almost exclusively on Palin's role in the race, was pretty good.  I also think it showed a fairly balanced portrayal of the former governor, who is shown sympathetically and humanized in a way that is extremely valuable to her personal image.  Her miserable reality show and her regular media appearances have been so carefully constructed that they have the verisimilitude of a cardboard cutout: Palin should have been happy to see her fictional self given such three-dimensional heft.

Naturally, though, I'm not a conservative and I don't think very highly of Palin, so my take on Game Change isn't going to be as important as that of the conservative base, her core audience.  But I don't see how she could have anything to fear on that score, either.  This is a "Hollywood movie" of a "mainstream media" book, so her fans are going to be primed to reject anything that seems unfavorable.  Lash out once or twice in a condescending press release, and spin control would be complete.

But Palin, bizarrely, chose to pay someone to make a rebuttal video.  Even worse, she paid them $19,000 for two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of rebuttal video that doesn't even contradict the movie!

How does the video push back against Game Change?  Well, it starts off by quoting major media figures in their praise of Palin, as they gushed about the surprise choice after the convention, and figures from the campaign, as they lauded her accomplishments as governor.  As the real Steve Schmidt says in the video, "She gave a great convention speech... we came out of that speech ahead of the polls."

But Game Change not only acknowledges all of the excitement caused by her selection, it's a major part of the plot.  So too is the next part of the video, clips of campaign personnel talking about her work ethic (Schmidt again: "Her focus was extraordinary, working fifteen or sixteen hours a day.")  And again, this was a major part of Game Change!  Remember Julianne Moore and her intense study of her stacks of index cards?

As the video progresses, it talks about the huge reception she got at rallies, the overflow crowds, her decent debate performance, and the comparisons to Ronald Reagan.  All of these elements are not just a part of Game Change, but they are direct and fundamental parts of the movie.  Its story was about how all of the excitement and pressure transformed a good governor into a huge star, allowing her to overcome obvious deficiencies in knowledge by using her charisma and her ability to draw a crowd.  Not only does Palin's video not rebut Game Change, it actually reinforces it!

It seems strange to pay $19,000 for a 2:38 parody video to rebut Game Change using archival footage and a few simple text effects - was it $1,000 to change "HBO Films" to "HBO Fiction"? - but it seems beyond insane to pay that sum for a video that doesn't even contradict the movie.

But hey, grifter's gonna grift.

11 April 2012


Lizzie and I wanted to go on a fun trip for Easter. We'd just moved apartments (the new one is dark and moldy), our jobs were stressing us out (teaching can be exhausting), and the weather had been terrible (dark clouds and rain all the time). We needed a fun trip.

Our first choice was Seacliff, once an insane asylum and now a hostel for the morbidly curious. However, the website, phone line, and apparently the hostel itself are all out of commission. When I called them, all I heard was the wrong number message and a very quiet voice wailing in the background. Probably everything is okay, though.

Instead, we made our way to Kaikoura. From Dunedin, at the bottom of the island, all the way to Kaikoura, which is near the top of the island, was quite a long trip. Of course, that's speaking in relative New Zealand terms. It's only a seven-hour drive, which by American roadtripping isn't all that bad, all the way up State Highway 1, which despite its vast name is almost completely a two-lane affair.

Need I even add that it's a gorgeous drive through the New Zealand countryside?  I feel like I should mention it when I talk about travel here, but it's almost silly - it's always a gorgeous drive, most places you go.  "Hey honey, I stopped and got some milk and the sight of the hills in the misty morning was astonishing."  "Rough day at work, but at least the view of the crashing sea on the rugged coast was beautiful."  "Pass the salt and oh my god look at the sunset."

Kaikoura, huddled on the coast at the thin end of SH1, is a whale town.  Not far offshore is the start of a deep ocean canal system, with the Hikurangi Trench plunging down a cold and dark ten thousand feet and giving a home to vast schools of arrow squid and the fierce lone giant squid.  Whales, born in the warmer waters up north, swim down to the trench when they are about fifteen and spend a decade or longer hunting and growing among the rich food sources here.  Their proximity brought men, shivering in wool and clutching long harpoons, whose local camp eventually turned into a full town.

Whales are the bones of Kaikoura to this day.  In some respects this is literal - the Garden of Memories that is the tribute to their WW1 dead is decorated with a half-dozen arches formed of whale jaws, and a local historic site is Fyffe House, a whaler's home built on foundations of vertebrae.  But it's also true for a rather more pleasant modern metaphorical way: if you want to see a whale, then there is no place in the whole world better than Kaikoura.  In an hour's voyage, you can be over their hunting grounds and tracking their calls.

Sperm whales, the primary whales in the area, are the world's largest predators and the largest toothed animal.  They hold their breath for more than an hour as they dive into the black, using echolocating clicks to find their prey.  They are huge and powerful and majestic.  Melville justly cried, "Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!"

We stayed at the Albatross Hostel, a pleasant enough little place mostly notable for the late nights kept by many of the staff and guests.  This wouldn't have been a problem if it hadn't been for the loud German conversations conducted outside of our window at two in the morning.

"Two girls spent an hour having the stupidest conversation last night. They were talking about what fruit their boobs look like."

Saturday morning, we hopped out of bed and right into the car.  For a not-inconsiderable investment, Lizzie was going up in a plane to see a whale with Wings Over Whales.  We went to the local airport, which was dedicated almost completely to this business.  A pleasant little pilot fellow, whose age I would put at about twelve, explained to my wife how it would work.  It was not a high-tech plan, to my surprise.  In essence, they would take off and fly around and look for a whale spouting.  Then they'd go look at it.

I had private doubts about this plan.  The ocean is large, and whales spend only ten or fifteen minutes on the surface each hour.  But we were here to see whales, and so I packed Lizzie into the tiny turboprop plane and watched it vanish into the sky with a fading drone.

Nearly an hour later, Lizzie and the middle-aged couple who had gone up with her all staggered back into the terminal.  Lizzie had a weak smile on her face.  They'd seen a whale, but it had taken a half hour of continuous circling over the ocean.  The digital display in the airport, that tracked their path, looked like a child's Etch-a-Sketch: a dense thicket of tight circles.  It must have been nauseating to be tilted to one side, strapped into a buzzing loud plane, spinning forever around in the sky.  But she saw a whale, huge and gray, even as she was turning green.

Saturday ended with veggie burgers and a walk at sunset on the beach.  Kaikoura's beach isn't sand, but rather progressively smaller round stones.  Smooth and heavy, they slide away underfoot.  Knots of thick bull kelp lie all along the water, attended by swarms of lean flies.  The water color is strange: close to shore, it's an unpleasant churned gray, but after twenty feet it abruptly breaks into the most astonishing bright turquoise.

The next day was the Big Day.  We were getting serious about these marine mammals: we were going on the Whale Watch, the big business that props up Kaikoura almost single-handedly.  Operating six custom-built jetboats and running between five and seven tours every day, this organization is a friendly local juggernaut.  Their booming business is well-deserved: from first to last they were professional and pleasant.

After barely ten minutes, the double-decker boat coasted to a stop just a bit offshore, sinking down into the water from its foils.  All around us were hundreds of Lagenorhynchus obscurus - dusky dolphins.  These dolphins are the "acrobats of the sea" - they raced around us, leaping over each other and doing tricks.  There were hundreds of them in the pod.  Most impressive were the aerial backflips: a dolphin would shoot forward in a powerful burst of speed under the water, looking like a blue-gray smear of color darting away, and then the dolphin would erupt out of the water, dropping its head and letting its tail swing high above it in a graceful arc before it plopped back into the waves.  This area off the coast was called the Racecourse for good reason.

But enough of that dolphin tomfoolery!  We left them to skip and dance in the water, while our ship's captain dipped a long microphone into the water to listen for whales.  The captain, a stout and short Maori with a barrel body on skinny legs, listened intently, then pronounced our heading with a chuckle.

"Have you noticed that the whale detector looks exactly like a metal detector? I have my suspicions."

When the boat came a stop, everyone lunged out of their seat to get outside, lining the railings to peer at the water.  It was bright and smooth, with big swells but no whitewater.  All we saw were seabirds, including the mollymawk albatross, which swept unmoving over the ocean like a white knife, steering with the barest shift of its wings.

Then I saw a spout of mist in the air, a hundred yards away, and a dark shape below.  I watched for a few seconds more, remembering the tour guide's admonishment against false sightings ("If it don't blow, we don't go.") but then it spouted again and we knew it was a whale.

It was "Tiaki," named with the Maori for "guardian" because of his long habitation in the trench off Kaikoura.  Tiaki, a big bull of a sperm whale, had been there for more than ten years.  Our guide laughingly called him "probably the world's most photographed whale."

Tiaki spouted, then rolled slightly as he went back under the water.  Sperm whales have blowholes that are right-of-center, so in order to breathe they have to shift slightly when they broach the surface.  Unfortunately, he was a little too far away to see well - more of a dark lump and water-spray than anything recognizable.  Only at the last moment did this change, as all the passengers pressed themselves against the railing and murmured in delight: he came for a final big breath, his body pumped full of oxygen for another trip down thousands of feet, and then he swept forward, his big tail pulling out of the water and flapping at us before vanishing in a powerful stroke.

It was amazing.

Nor does this - its amazing strength - at all tend to cripple the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.
A spare twenty minutes passed, and the sea grew a little rougher as the swells became ever-higher.  I started to feel seasick.  Seasick, for the first time in my life!  It was, apparently, the queer motion of the swells lifting the boat from behind the stern - something about it didn't sit right with me.  Nor, it seemed, did it sit very well with anyone - many people had quietly excused themselves to be sick.  Lizzie was among them, her face pale and her joy over the whale becoming consumed with nausea.  Perhaps the previous day's plane-ride had aggregated.

She felt better, afterwards, and just in time.  Twice in twenty more minutes, we saw a second sperm whale: "Matimati," a whale made locally famous recently thanks to a photo of him bearing the scars of a battle with a giant squid.  His name is Maori for "fingers," describing two distinctive fleshy bits of his tail.

"Those are not the whales' names. They have their own names that they call each other. And they worship their own god.
  His name is Whalor."

We got to see Matimati much more closely.  You could see the long line of him, a swelling immensity that vanished beneath the water.  He was almost as big as the boat, with grey flesh that looked wrinkled and pebbled.  As he rose to breathe, the hump where his body became his tail rose from the water.  He snorted out water in a spray above him that turned into a rainbow mist in the bright sun.

The tour ended quietly, with a few minutes' pause to see the dolphins again.  We were soon back in Kaikoura, our stomachs still churning.  Lizzie was happy to be back on solid ground, and we lay on the beach in the sun for a long time.  The entire time we were on vacation, there was not a cloud in the sky.

The evening was mostly spent in recovery and contemplation of the trip to see the whales.  We took a long walk down to a point down the peninsula where seals come to lie in the sun and rest.  We'd seen lots of sea lions over the past year, since they frequently come to the beaches of Dunedin to bury themselves in sand and snort unpleasantly at their fellows, but this was my first chance to see the less intimidating and sleeker seal up close.  They didn't appear to be bothered by the dozens of people who came to gawk, not even when an entire busload of Japanese tourists arrived and crammed around the half-dozen seals flopped on the rocks.  They just lay there, scratched their heads with their back flippers, and occasionally peered around with their strange black eyes.  They moved their heads as if orientation didn't matter, looking upside-down with equal facility as rightside-up.

Dinner was a seafood feast at a famous grill that kept its prices low by operating out of a metal trailer.  It was the first time we'd had a mess of seafood (mussels, paua, fish, scallops, whitebait) in a long time, and it really hit the spot after a busy day of whalewatching and seasickness.

For all of these things, I think my favorite part of the weekend only arrived the next morning, as we were headed back home to Dunedin.  We'd chatted with the heavyset, jovial woman in charge of Fyffe House (the former whaler's cottage built on whalebone) and she'd told us about a little-known nook a bit further north, where we could see some other seals up close.  We got close directions, and Monday morning we went slightly out of our way to see this place: the Ohau Point Seal Colony.  I am very glad we did.

Ohau seems to operate like a creche.  It's a cold waterfall and stream with many shallow pools among the rocks, running down to the sea.  The mother seals bring their babies to the opening of the stream, and they scurry up over the rocks and to the pools, where they can play in safety away from the sharks and whales that might otherwise eat them.  After the mothers have hunted down some food, they come to collect them.

There were dozens of slick black seal pups.  They slid over each other in the big pool beneath the waterfall, flopping around and making small squealing barks.  Sometimes they climbed up as best they could onto the bank, moving with awkward squirms and flapping of flippers.  They'd play-fight, mouthing toothlessly their friends' heads and butting them with their heads before tumbling back into the water.  And they were very curious, coming up to us and staring with those strange eyes.  It was a place of almost unimaginable innocence, where babies played all day without fear or concern.  It was very beautiful to witness.

We came home to Dunedin without event.  It was cloudy and dark, and a light rain fell that night.  And we will go back to our jobs and our students and to cleaning our new flat, which is dank and scuffed with grime.  We will return to life and all its associated drudgeries as autumn descends and winter approaches.

But I will be thinking of whales and seals, and everything will be all right.

"I threw up!"

04 April 2012


One of the wonderful things about working with Hemingway is his tremendously enjoyable wittiness.  It's seldom seen in an outright way in his fiction, but in A Moveable Feast and in his letters he roars out some truly hilarious lines - even if they are occasionally rather nasty.

A Moveable Feast has some amazing examples.  Hemingway's description of critic Wyndham Lewis remains one of the most viciously cutting things I've ever read: Hemingway claimed he'd never "seen a nastier looking man" and said Lewis had the "eyes of an unsuccessful rapist."  But even better (and less nasty) are some of the cracks and aphorisms in the new The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: 1907-1922.  Here are some choice examples of a truly amazing collection of correspondence:

In 1925, to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Or dont you like to write letters.  I do because it's such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you've done something.

In 1922, to Kate Smith:


In 1922, to Ezra Pound, after hearing about T.S. Eliot's new poem "The Wasteland," which had been published after the poet's nervous collapse:

I am glad to read Herr Elliot's adventure away from impeccability.  If Herr Elliot would strangle his sick wife, buggar the brain specialist and rob the bank he might write an even better poem.
The above is facetious.

In 1922, to Frank Mason (his boss, who had questioned his expense reports):


Amazing stuff.