“Watchmen”

When I first began reading “Watchmen,” I didn’t like it- and I didn’t want to admit it, because everyone I talked to said they liked it. Some even admitted being very excited to read it! Truth is, I found “Watchmen” to be a boring book at first. It was the first time I’d ever read a graphic novel and I preferred non-graphic novels to graphic novels. I think I would’ve liked “Watchmen” much more if it had been a non-graphic novel. The comic-book layout of the novel rather annoyed me, because after reading the dialogue bubbles, I had to scan over the images to take in the whole situation.

            And then…

            I read Chapter 6 of “Watchmen.”

            That was when I found the book to be interesting for once. It shattered my earlier beliefs that it was a boring book. It was after reading Chapter 6 that I actually liked “Watchmen.” If there’s one thing that I like about “Watchmen,” it’s the emotional depth to it. All the characters feel and act like real characters. They’re not flat, stereotypical characters. Everything they say and do has a back-story to it. I never expected a graphic novel to be so dense. After reading Chapter 6, “Watchmen” became, quite possibly, my 4th or 5th favourite book on the Arts One reading list (Frankenstein being my favourite, followed by Jekyll/Hyde, Medea, and The Yellow Wallpaper).

            I also thought about the “monster” in “Watchmen.” I first thought Rorschach as being the lonely, isolated “monster.” Then I thought Adrian Veidt was the “monster.”  By the end of the graphic novel, I came to three conclusions: a) There are no monsters, b) Everyone is a monster, OR c) Rorschach is the monster. Why are there no monsters? Because I think of monsters as being individuals that others can’t understand. I can understand why the characters act as they do. As the reader, you get to see snippets of the life history of almost all the main characters. Once you know why they act as they do, you no longer think of them as “monsters.” Or they could be all monsters, in the sense that they all live kind of… isolated from society? Rorschach is certainly isolated. He was framed from the start. Adrian Veidt is the stereotypical villain mastermind in one sense (but whether he truly is a villain or not is debatable) and operates from Antarctica, of all places! Dan and Laurie both change their name at the end. Are they now living in disguise?

            Then there’s my opinion that Rorschach is the sole monster in the graphic novel. I’m not a firm believer in this belief, but it’s arguable that he is. He’s actually my favourite character in the novel. If there’s one character that made “Watchmen” worth reading, I’d say it’s Rorschach.

 He’s fundamentally good, but because of circumstances and certain decisions that he’s made, he’s sent into “exile” from society. He reminds me of Frankenstein’s creature! Come to think of it… It was after reading Rorschach’s back story that made me like “Watchmen.” Why is he the monster? According to the esteemed Jonathan Beasley-Murray, monsters are creatures or individuals who live in isolation from society and are misunderstood. Rorschach lives in isolation from the beginning of “Watchmen” to the end. He doesn’t enter a relationship with anyone, unlike Laurie + Jon, or Laurie + Dan. He’s sent into prison by society, even though he had punished a man who had butchered a girl and fed her remains to two German shepherds. He cared about his whore of a mother, only to be physically assaulted by her and two guys he encountered on the street. He’s misunderstood a lot. I once thought Jon might be a kind of monster too. He sends himself into exile in the end. Then I decided against it, because Jon had always been welcomed by civilians. Rorschach never was.

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Foe

My expectation of “Foe” was that it would feature Susan Barton’s time on the island with Crusoe and Friday for the majority of the novel. In reality, Susan’s time on the island takes up less than half of the whole novel, and most of it is focused on Susan’s time with Friday in England. I think it’s better this way, because her time on the island really was boring. Crusoe hardly had any depth and personality to him, and Friday seemed more of an ornamental figure than an actual person. It’s only in England that Friday becomes a little interesting, because of the number of unanswered questions that only he has the answer to. Not that he ever answers them.

 

I thought “Foe” was more about how stories and language shape our identity than it had to do with Susan’s “adventure” on the island. Starting on page 132, Susan explicitly voices aloud that sometimes she has no idea who she is, because:

a) Foe has distorted her story so much

b) The girl who showed up claiming to be her daughter isn’t her daughter.

The fact that Susan feels a certain dissolution of her identity brings to mind this philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make it sound? In this case, Susan does have a relatively boring adventure on the island with Crusoe and Friday, but no one knows about it except for her (and Friday, but he doesn’t count because he has no concept of language anyway). Did it really happen? After all, Daniel Foe is going to distort it so much that what actually happens is lost amidst an ocean of words that tells of things that did not happen. Is Susan trying to say that because of Foe’s distortion of events, even she is unable to pick up what is reality and what isn’t? Or is she complaining because Foe isn’t doing his job correctly? She thinks he is the intended one to write her story, but he won’t write it the way she would like him to write it. I’m still confused as to why Susan didn’t write down her own story, or why she thinks Foe is the intended one. If this is her story, and if she was physically and intellectually capable of writing, why shouldn’t she be the author of her story? This was a question that lingered in my mind.

Oh, another question: Who is Susan Barton junior? I highly doubt she is actually Susan Barton senior’s daughter. But why does she persist in thinking Susan Barton senior is her mother?

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Survival in Auschwitz

Prior to reading “Survival in Auschwitz,” I always thought Freud had a point when he said we repress our most traumatic memories. While that may be true to some extent, I found that for the majority of cases, we don’t repress our worst memories- and this autobiography, if you believe it to be a true account, is proof. And I believe that everything that happens in Levi’s book is a true event of what actually happened. Levi’s memory of events is excellent. He remembers all the details. While I personally have a very good memory (it’s true, I can still tell you who was in my Kindergarten class and what they were like), I find that the majority of people I know don’t have very good memories. Some can’t even remember past Grade 7! Anyway, Levi’s great memory for events was the first thing that stood out for me while I was reading his book.

Another thing that stood out was the fact that Levi writes with little to no self-pity. I have read other Holocaust memoirs that were very emotional and full of phrases like “WHAT KIND OF WORLD IS THIS?” or “HOW CAN THEY DO THIS TO ME?” Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the treatment they went through was horrific and they are entitled to ask such questions. And Levi does quietly, in a subtle manner, question whether the camp he lives in is even fit for humans. My point is that he doesn’t show self-pity. He writes as if he were a roving camera that simply captures what he observes as a camp inmate. This is not a book that goes along the lines of, This is what happened to me and it made me feel horrible so I want sympathy from you people. Rather, this book is more about what Levi observes and how he has kept in contact with other camp inmates after they were liberated. I admire Levi for the fact that he was able to calmly, as well as simply, state what happened to him during the years he spent in Auschwitz. I don’t think he ever succumbs to hysterics or breaks down either.

I noticed that, in some ways, Levi’s reserved manner of narrating makes him, as the narrator, seem like a lifeless shadow. He can feel emotions, but he doesn’t outwardly fly off into a fit of passions, condemning his living conditions. Of course, all camp inmates will eventually become shadows of their former living selves over time. Levi’s method of narration emphasizes how the people in the camps are slowly stripped of their former hopes and ambitions, because even living to the next day is uncertain. He gives me the impression, through his way of calm, outwardly emotionless way of speaking, that he is a very tired individual. He tells you what happens, but he leaves out how he feels about the events (but there are some cases in which he does, I admit). It’s almost as if, as time progresses, his emotions are dying. His spirit self is leaving him. And undoubtedly, this is true for perhaps all camp inmates.

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The Daisy Dolls

While I disliked the Borges readings (it’s true, Jon), I did like reading “The Daisy Dolls.” My initial impression of the story was that it was another feminist story, where women are depicted as daisy dolls to be used for pleasure and thrown aside once they ceased to interest their masters. Then I realized this may be one element to the story, but the story seemed to center more on Horace than the actual daisy dolls (despite the title of the book). So what is this story trying to say about Horace?

The way I see it, Horace is, in some ways, a form of Jekyll. A man who has an “outside” self and an “inside” self. He has his hidden desires that won’t go away, so he turns to a solution to indulge in them. He doesn’t exactly have a Hyde, but he does try to hide his sexual relationship with a doll. At least he does make an attempt to do so. Whether he is actually successful or not is another story. I found it hard to understand how any person could possibly be sexually attracted to a doll- and act on those impulses too! Maybe I’m being narrow-minded. After reading the short story, I’m still not quite sure what kind of a person Horace is. Has he been abused in his childhood, so now he’s messed up and wants to have many relationships with many dolls? He cares about his wife, but he still can’t help himself from cheating on her. We don’t know what happened in his childhood. We’re only given a hint. Apparently, they died in an epidemic when he was a child- and he resented them for it. What happened after that? We don’t know.

And what is it about those daisy dolls? Are they really a host body for spirits, as Horace believed? Or are they manufactured as sexual objects? In some ways, they really are both. They’re not just dolls. There’s something odd about them. They’re not the dolls you’d give a child to play with. They’re like… inanimate prostitutes? As for the spirit theory, the dolls really do have a personality. Horace swears they even move on their own. So what are they, really? Even after pondering this question many times, I still haven’t a clue. If I had to go with one answer, I’d say these dolls are inanimate prostitutes. But even that answer isn’t a sufficient answer. They’re more than prostitutes.

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Kafka and Gilman

I stated in my Frankenstein blog post that Frankenstein was my most favourite read to date in Arts One, but The Metamorphosis and The Yellow Wallpaper is a close second. One thing that irked me while reading The Metamorphosis is the fact that we are never told exactly how and why Gregor changes into an insect. After all, people don’t transform into bugs for no reason! That aside, I liked the novella. Gregor is, in some ways, the “monster” in the novella. He’s the outsider. His family shuns and ignores him for the most part. Yet, Gregor isn’t the “in the closet” monster that jumps out and says “BOO!” or feast on innocent human beings. He’s a good monster. He’s a monster who gives unconditionally to his family. In his human life, he worked so hard so that he could pay back his parents’ debts and give his sister a better standard of living. When he is transformed into a monster, he is neglected by those he worked so hard for. Unfair? I thought so too. Even when he is transformed, he still has unconditional love for his family. He tries to hide himself whenever possible so that they are not afraid of his appearance. When he realizes, and accepts, that they can no longer look after him, he willingly dies so as to cease being a burden to his family. That’s one good “monster.” Too often, we think of monsters as evil, repulsive creatures.

 

The Yellow Wallpaper was a somewhat creepy read. Not “The Grudge” kind of creepy, but an eerie read nevertheless. It actually reminded me of the film Paranormal Activity, believe it or not. The “monster” is unseen in this short story, but at the end it possesses- or takes control over- the protagonist. The narrator believes she is now the woman behind the wallpaper. What happens in Paranormal Activity at the end? Katie is possessed. Micah is murdered. While John, the husband in the short story, is alive (only fainted), the fact that he’s unconscious on the floor is reminiscent of the ending to Paranormal Activity, for those who have watched the first movie. I also think that the woman, or women, behind the wallpaper, is actually a mirror reflection of the protagonist. The protagonist is confined to their rental house by her husband. She doesn’t have a confidante and she’s trapped. Is she trying to free herself as she tears the wallpaper? I think so. When people have no control over their lives and no confidants, like the protagonist, I think they turn inward and become mad. It was a very interesting read!

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The Waste Land

Unlike the blogger who said that he was pissed at buying a book he wouldn’t even read a quarter off, I wasn’t “pissed” at all. It’s one more book for me to add to my home library. I love it when someone comes, glances admiringly at all my books and comments on how well-read I must be. To be fair though, I have read most of the books that I own!

Anyway, while “The Waste Land” isn’t as hard to read as Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals,” I had a hard time with it at first. It seemed like a poem that had no meaning (which, I know, is far from the truth). I read the poem for its imagery, and it did paint a “waste land.” It’s one of those depressing poems which you read, your head gets filled with sad imagery, and you have no idea what it’s about. That’s what happened to me the first time I read it. Hopefully the evening lecture will enlighten me! To get the full poem, I think we’d have to read the works the poem alludes to. But quite honestly, who has the time for that?

This is probably the shortest blog post I have ever written to date, but that’s because I didn’t fully grasp the poem. I’m going to wait and see how the magnificent Kevin McNeilly can illuminate this poem.

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Civilization and its Discontents

I believe Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents is the last philosophical text in our reading list for Arts One this year. Hopefully I’m right- if I am, then the fact that I’m done with philosophy (at least for this school year) is a fact worth celebrating!

Alright, back to business. Civilization and its Discontents is probably the most enjoyable philosophical text I’ve read since September. I hated Plato’s Republic, Hobbe’s Leviathan, Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality, and I especially hated Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. Freud didn’t even stir my dislike. Maybe after Nietzsche, Freud seemed much easier to handle. During Caroline William’s lecture on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, she mentioned Freud a number of times. I can see why she did. In Civilization and its Discontents, Freud talks about how people have created society, only to have society limit our personal happiness by repressing our natural instincts. Isn’t that what happened to Dr Jekyll? He cared too much about his reputation and society’s expectations of him that he made the drug to turn him into Mr Hyde, so that he could indulge in his less socially approved of desires. Freud would say that Dr Jekyll’s so-called “evil” desires by society are, in fact, natural. He had no need to create a Mr Hyde! Freud thinks the more civilization we have the less human we are becoming.

Prior to taking Arts One, the conventional belief was that humans are very different from animals. Humans were supposed to be viewed as this very intelligent figure that could control their emotions and think logically. Animals, on the other hand, thought simply of things: They eat, they sleep, they reproduce, and they die. They don’t strive for Nobel Prizes, or compete for grades to get into Harvard. I think Freud thinks that in reality, the “real” human is supposed to be something like an animal. No jealousy, no corruption, just someone who eats/sleeps/reproduces/dies. What has happened is that we have formed civilization (with good intentions- to protect ourselves from murder!) but civilization came at a huge cost. We have gradually lost our humanity. We think that our natural, unconscious desires are bad, disgusting and evil so we repress them. We have come up with a solution only to have our problems multiplied. Now we hate ourselves because the “natural human” in us is being repressed and hidden away from the public eye. We’ve become walking zombies while our real selves are locked in a dungeon somewhere in ourselves. At first, I thought Freud was a great deal like Rousseau. Now that I think of it, he’s not quite like Rousseau. Rousseau thinks that nascent man has long since been extinguished and that there’s no going back to nascent times. While Freud agrees that we can’t go back to the primitive state, he does think that our “natural self” is still in us- hence, unconscious desires that may surface in dreams. Our “natural state of self” is still there and haunts us. What we do is play “ghost-busters” and try to drive that natural state out of us. Do we succeed? Probably not, it’s still there.

 

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

After reading On the Genealogy of Morals, A Discourse on Inequality, and Leviathan, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was a very welcome change! I’ve always been much more into reading novels like Frankenstein or Robinson Crusoe over philosophical texts. Despite the fact that this was my first time actually reading the original version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, I had actually encountered the storyline before in cartoons. So no, fortunately my childhood did not suck!

I think one of the questions Stevenson asks is: Are humans naturally good or evil? Mr Hyde represents the “evil” side to humanity whereas Dr Jekyll is the “good” side. Now, over time, the identity of Mr Hyde subsumes Dr Jekyll despite the fact that the former is a great deal shorter than the latter. Dr Jekyll struggles to retain his “good” persona as he is continually tormented by his inner Mr Hyde. Is Stevenson trying to say that the evil eventually triumphs over the good because of Mr Hyde emerging as the dominant personality? He’s rather ambiguous because Dr Jekyll kills Mr Hyde by committing suicide. Dr Jekyll does “triumph” over Mr Hyde in one way, but had he gone on living, Mr Hyde becomes the alpha figure.

Another theme that occurs in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a theme already covered in Frankenstein, where the pursuit of creating another life has fatal consequences (aka. people dying). The creation in Frankenstein kills Victor’s bride, father (indirectly), brother and friend. Mr Hyde murders a popular politician. Isn’t it odd how we’re reading such novels in university? These books practically scream at the reader: DO NOT VENTURE FURTHER IN THE PURSUIT OF KNOWLEDGE, whereas university is seen as an institution for advanced research and learning! People enrol in university courses for the sake of learning, and clearly, these books convey the message that this is a dangerous thing to do.

The “monster” in this novel is slightly harder to define than Frankenstein. In Frankenstein, it was easy to sympathize with the “monster” because he was born good but turned to crime because he was denied human understanding and companionship. Mr Hyde was “born” evil. He had Dr Jekyll’s affections but he ignored them. Is the monster Mr Hyde, who is composed of a person’s innate evilness, or is Dr Jekyll to blame for creating him? Or is the real monster curiosity, which drives us to pursue knowledge we shouldn’t have? The great thing about novels is that they’re much easier to carry a discussion with because the answers are more debatable, whereas books on philosophy (aka. Plato’s “Republic”) in a way force the reader to view things in a certain way.

 

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On the Genealogy of Morals

I was never a fan of reading philosophical texts, and On the Genealogy of Morals was no exception. It’s not that I find philosophy boring, but I prefer reading novels like Frankenstein over Plato’s Republic or Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. On the Genealogy of Morals wasn’t extraordinarily bad compared to previous philosophical texts I’ve read as part of the Arts One curriculum, but I still had to force myself to read the entire 335 pages of the text.

 

Nietzsche isn’t as easy to understand as Rousseau, who makes a rather straightforward argument. Nietzsche likes to ramble, and I suspect he knows he can be rather hard to follow. He asks a number of times, “Am I understood?” Having said that, I was able to get the main idea he was trying to make in every essay. The core argument he is trying to give is, I think, that humans create good and evil, as well as determine the divine. He devotes a part of his text talking about how ancestors become deified as a group becomes more powerful, and then this group will believe that they owe their ancestors their power through their ancestor’s protection and governance from above. It’s interesting to see how “good” and “evil”, which we normally believe to have been present as long as humans existed, are actually creations of our perceptions. Perhaps there is no good and evil, as we once believed. Nietzsche credits the origin of good to be what the nobility in past times termed “good” and evil to what the plebeians considered “bad”, which may, in fact, be the “good” in the eyes of the nobility. That’s what stands out in my memory, despite having read the entire text.

 

One of the first impressions I had of this philosophical text when I first flipped through it was: This is going to be a philosophical text where the author is going to go on and on about how great he is. I noticed how towards the end the essays were titled Why I write such good books, Why I am so clever, and Why I am a destiny. This is rather a vain thing to write! Most philosophers feel that way, but all the philosophers that I’ve heard about- Plato, Rousseau, Hobbes, Aristotle- wouldn’t actually use that as the title of an essay. Nietzsche shows contempt towards the reader in general. Sometimes I wonder if his asking, “Am I understood?” is actually a case of him demanding the reader if he is keeping up with the arguments Nietzsche is presenting, or if Nietzsche acknowledges how difficult it is to follow his writings.

 

I also have to make one contradiction to Nietzsche. He writes on page 263, “I have been told that it is impossible to put down one of my books- that I even disturb nightly rest.” Truth is, I found it very easy to put down one of his books (aka. On the Genealogy of Morals), and I even slept well after reading it for a few hours every evening.

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Frankenstein

Out of all the books that we’ve read so far in Arts One, and perhaps including the books that we have yet to read, Frankenstein is my favourite. I liked it for both personal and academic reasons. We’ve encountered various monsters throughout the various texts we’ve trudged through, but I think the creation in Frankenstein is the ultimate monster that dominates and eclipses the rest. He’s not the type of evil, seductive monster one would encounter in The Odyssey, or the raging feminist Medea, or the type of “good” monster that unites human beings together in Leviathan. In some ways the creation in Frankenstein is the stereotypical monster. We once agreed, as a seminar class, that the definition of a monster is an individual that is socially isolated, misunderstood by society, want to be accepted, yet use the wrong methods. I’d say Frankenstein fits this very definition, or stereotype, of monsters that exists in the educated mind (the less educated would say a monster is one of those boogeyman who hides in one’s closet, then jumps out at night).
Some people could arguably say that the Frankenstein’s creation is the monster in the novel, but I honestly never thought of it that way. I think Frankenstein himself is more the monster, but I’ll explain why later. Initially, I thought the name “Frankenstein” referred to the creation itself, and not the creator. Various cartoon series I used to watch when I was little made me think that way. In reality, “Frankenstein” was the creator. The novel never gives the creation any name, let alone call it “Frankenstein.” This somewhat influenced me to think that perhaps the creator, Frankenstein, is the monster- although, I admit, I have associated the word “Frankenstein” so much with a monstrous individual that my thoughts may be biased. Maybe there were no monsters! But to me, Frankenstein is the obvious monster.
Frankenstein, in some ways, represents society. We agreed in our seminar discussions that society’s expectations and norms give birth to monsters, who don’t quite fit into these regulations. Frankenstein was expecting a creation that resembled a human physically. What he failed to realize was that he had created a human emotionally, but that the creation was encaged in the physical body of a “monster.” Frankenstein only saw the physical side to his creation, and that was enough to repulse him. The creation itself represents the kind of social misfit who can’t fit in anywhere, and turns to destructive means. Many serial killers and notorious criminals could probably relate to Frankenstein’s creation, as well as those responsible for school shootings.
Another reason why I thought the creation outshined other monsters we’ve read about in Arts One was because while the other monsters showed some human characteristics, this monster was almost entirely human except in physical features. In other words, this was the most human monster we’ve encountered to date. I can use one word to describe this monster: haunting. Even more hauntingly beautiful than Caliban’s speeches in The Tempest. I think the last image the novel leaves us with has imprinted on my memory for indefinable reasons. There’s something so human about this monster that I can’t describe it, and something so pitiful and admirable that no words can express it. He’s human because he was born good, he wanted acceptance and couldn’t get it. He had a much purer and innocent heart to begin with than many humans I know nowadays, but because of his deformed features, he was doomed to be forever alone. Most people in such situations would probably go off on a murder spree without feeling an ounce of remorse, but this monster actually had a conscience. He lamented the death of Frankenstein when I probably would’ve celebrated the event. Frankenstein gave him nothing but a cursed existence, but the creation felt responsible for the death of his creator and offered to kill himself as compensation. It’s his love for humans and need for acceptance (a human trait) that ultimately killed the creation in the end.

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