The Crucible–Arthur Miller

This play is really quite terrifying; I cannot think of any other way to describe it. This is the first time I’ve heard of the Salem Witch Trials, and when exposed to this book it brought to mind The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne which was also set in Puritan 17th century Massachusetts. In it, Hester Prynne is accused of adultery and is made to wear an ‘A’ as a manifestation of her sin– it becomes weight and symbol. But it is the people around them, the public, the crowd led by a few especially wicked individuals that are the drivers of that hysteria, and in both The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter it is they that are really the villains and antagonists. I suppose that that these terrible punishments are sought in the name of morality exacerbates the horror; evil is evil, but when it masks or deludes itself into believing that violence should be done in the name of good is more frightening. It would be interesting to examine the psychological elements of this, in which people feel their ethics and beliefs are so precarious as to need to unload their fears this way. It reminds me of Achebe and what he said in one of his responses to Conrad: how colonists needed affirmation of their civilization’s superiority, and needed to define the object of their hatred/fear in direct opposition to themselves. It just goes to show that really, everything is internal; there are rarely external threats, only those that are conjured up by strange mutations of fear. Also curious: that the most seemingly self-assured people are really the most twisted (such as Danforth); their authority is derived from the uncertainties of others, especially the uncertainties of the best and most morally upright people.

The Value (?) of Stereotypes

I found the “Negritude” component of the presentation yesterday to be the most fascinating; elements of the phenomenon described seem to have evolved since Black Skin, White Masks  into what today is black pride. That Fanon believes such attitudes counterproductive to producing conducive racial discourse was surprising, but upon hearing the “existence precedes essence” reasoning, it does make sense. Still, would black pride be locking black people into images and stereotypes that are ultimately derogatory? Or is it so fundamentally different from the Negritude described that that is no longer the case? Or is Fanon, in any case, wrong?

Thinking of questions reminds me of some aspects of humour and parody with racial undertones. The skits performed by the comediennes Key and Peele come to mind. I watched one in which they claimed to “adjust the amount of blackness” depending on the ethnicities of their company; claims that appeal to perceptions the collective hold about black and white people. These are perceptions that are rooted in stereotypes and mass culture–that we know what they are talking about–does this mean we are unable to truly eradicate belief and adherence to these stereotypes? “Black humour” and cultural practices such as black people using the N-word among themselves–these seem to be cathartic processes, an erasure of past pains by making them ridiculous, or a subjugation of the power of that word by invoking its historical black-white relation–“humour as tragedy plus time” come to life. Would such humour be part of the solution? I do not know, and whether it contributes to the easing of racial tensions seems to be presumptuous criteria for judging its value.

As some have already mentioned, I feel vaguely uncomfortable and/or patronizing expressing my thoughts.

Rewriting the Soul–Ian Hacking

I must admit that at this very moment I have not yet finished the text, but what I have read and the lecture yesterday (which was enormously helpful) leave me with more than enough to think about. My reaction to Rewriting the Soul thus far is similar to Silencing the Past by Trouillot–I am extremely disturbed. Reading these texts (and by extension, certain philosophers) never fail to tip your world and significantly alter most assumptions we hold–especially regarding people and practices we normally have so much faith in (medicine, government etc.)

Even more incomprehensible is, as other people have mentioned, the psychologists’ tendencies to actively seek and encourage personality disorders. I struggle to understand what would motivate anybody to do such a thing; perhaps diagnosing people granted them satisfaction? Furthered their personal theories and projects? It is always striking how confident some men can be about their own little formulations and theories–enough so to ruin the lives of or traumatize patients. The mind is surely uncharted water, but that they plunge in so deep with so much certainty…

Of multiple personality/dissociative identity disorder, the most fascinating aspect is that the number and character of the alters follow popular cultural trends (from 3 to 16 alters following the releases of those movies) and are often moulded after terrible stereotypes of other ethnicities and races. Perhaps this was another consequence of presumptuous psychologists.

The Hobbeses

Years ago when I was much younger and finally had access to the internet I googled “Calvin and Hobbes.” This was a desperate measure then, as I’d not acquired the habit of googling all my life’s problems and looking for the answers/seeking solace in anonymous strangers; and this desperation was due to a drought in the addition of new Calvin and Hobbes strips. Imagine the surprise when I learned that the strip had ended the year I was born! The search, however, was not fruitless. I learned that the name of Hobbes, the pseudo-imaginary tiger in the strip, (and one I’d thought strange) had been based on a 16th century English philosopher. This brief reading of Leviathan (or at least the first dozen or so chapters) has been my only acquaintance with the philosopher since then, and I cannot read the text without wondering why Bill Watterson, the strip’s author and artist as well as notorious recluse, chose to name a six-year old’s best friend after so momentous a figure. (The boy Calvin is named after the theologian John Calvin, whom I know even less about.) In the strip, Hobbes is the more rational counterpart to Calvin’s impulsive and wild nature. As a tiger, he is pessimistic in regards to humans and their nature; he is especially pessimistic when it comes to their capacity for cruelty and insanity.  As far as I know, the similarities end there, as Hobbes is often co-orchestrator with Calvin in his schemes against his parents, school, babysitter and classmates, all or one of which I presume would represent the authoritarian state that ought not be revolted against under any circumstances, no matter how terrible. I suppose it would be cliche to interpret the tiger, then, as Watterson’s personal remake of the philosopher’s ideas as he sees them–keeping the pessimism (which, really, is ultimately optimism-one does not complain unless one cares) while removing the more draconian elements of Hobbes’s state which were most likely a result of the historical context Hobbes was born and bred in. Nonetheless, I will be rereading my collection of the strips with an eye out for the similarities between the two. The tiger has always been my favourite character, and perhaps he will be able to sustain me through the murky, dense language of Thomas Hobbes!

Until the Dawn’s Light by Aharon Appelfeld

Finally, a novel! Or not.

Reading Until the Dawn’s Light is an intense experience, and while I have thoughts on the content I feel they would be redundant, so I’ll comment instead on the style.

Appelfeld writes with such finesse. The short, nonlinear chapters do not at any point give the impression of nonlinearity–the novel is perfectly seamless. The major events of Blanca’s life are told in multiple stages, her formative experiences are gradually revealed, yet a grey sadness, indeed blankness, permeates the whole text. It seems that the more I read about Blanca, the less I knew about her, which was why the events of the climax were not jarring; at that point I already was unable to know anything she did. Her stories are mostly of confusion and pain and annihilation–what climax could properly conclude them? The form of the novel (especially one with bleakness, and especially one with such complex themes) demands a dramatic, symbolic finale.

Miranda Burgess’ comments about silence during her lecture gave voice to a phenomenon I feel has been pulsating quietly in most discussions and seminars I’ve attend. She talked about silence–how Blanca was repeatedly unable to adequately speak the words on her mind. Silence has been a recurring theme in this stream, with Kierkegaard and The Penelopiad and even in Plato. It seems absurd that we can only speak about silence, then, by discussing it. The course is so fast-paced and driven that sometimes it seems not enough time is given to absorbing the text.

The Republic-Book VI

Having established that only philosophical natures can be rulers of the kallipolis, Socrates and co. proceed to both list and rule out qualities that would either characterize or exemplify a person from becoming a philosopher. A philosopher is quick to learn, has a good memory, is courageous, high-minded and virtuous. A philosopher is also born one. A person cannot become a philosopher–they must be so naturally inclined.

Educating a philosophical nature to suit their idea of a philosopher-king is of crucial importance, for if such a person were to be raised in the incorrect environment, their nature would allow them to be simultaneously influential and destructive. These developing philosophers, then, must not be exposed to the corrupting influence of the public, the majority–a majority Socrates deems non-philosophic.

The majority holds false conceptions of what philosophers and wisdom and knowledge should be–indeed, they are unable to ever truly know because of the nature that defines them. Instead, they labor under the falsehoods told to them by false philosophers–sophists– who take to philosophy “like prisoners escaping from jail to take refuge in a temple” (495d.) for the prestige and admiration it would grant them.

A philosopher-king is possible, though rare. It would be rare to find a person who retains all the qualities of a philosopher (having been raised properly) yet still choose a proper and stable life. Socrates reminds his listeners that it is not the small qualities that are significant–it is only important that they have the most important virtue.

Pleasure is ruled out, as well as knowledge (as it could only be knowledge of the good,) and thus it is this good that is the most important. The form of this good is not explicitly revealed to us by Socrates; he claims he has knowledge of it, but cannot explain it (or we cannot understand it) and closes off the book with an analogy of the book to the sun (as discussed in Jill’s lecture.)

The Penelopiad

I re-read The Penelopiad today after listening to Jill Fellows lecture on it and came to realize how much I’d missed in my initial readings. The length of the work is deceptive, and is not representative of its density; next time, I will take notes while reading!

Let me just briefly introduce myself; I am quite embarrassed as I’ve just remembered that I never introduced myself on the blog! I am originally from Taiwan, but have spent the bulk of my life (12 years, to be exact,) in Singapore. I moved to Richmond, BC around three years ago and currently live on campus.

More importantly, The Penelopiad.

It left me intensely sad.

The Penelope here is modern, upbeat, quotidian; she narrates her stories with a wit and sarcasm that belie the tragic smallness of her mortal life. Yet the words one remembers her speaking after leaving the book are those that betray her vulnerability-her accounts of her parents, most obviously, but also the detachment with which she speaks of her maids. Penelope modifies that story constantly-it is as if she is afraid to delve too deep into that part of The Odyssey, and her own passive role in their deaths.

The Maids, meanwhile, are non-apologetic, forthright. They do not seem to care much about the way in which their narratives will be received-but the very fact that they weave themselves in so constantly, interrupting Penelope and rectifying her accounts suggest that they are, in fact, highly invested in their legacy. Their tragedy is amplified in The Penelopiad when set alongside Penelope’s own accounts; the bitter darkness of their lives is only here given a space-a space which they make full use of.