Category Archives: Arts One texts

Burying the past in Sebald’s Austerlitz


In Arts One this week we read W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz, and I had to miss one of our seminar meetings due to a health concern so we just had one discussion on this rich and complicated text. I wanted to share some thoughts on a few things I focused on when reading it, that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in our one discussion today.

Light, sight, darkness

The novel begins with the unnamed narrator visiting the Nocturama in Antwerp, from which visit what he recalls the most is “that several of [the animals] had strikingly large eyes, and the fixed, inquiring gaze found in certain painters and philosophers who seek to penetrate the darkness which surrounds us purely by means of looking and thinking” (4-5).

In our lecture on this book, Jason Lieblang talked about how with this discussion of the Nocturama, as well as the discussion of moths (90-94), Sebald may be asking us to consider a different way of looking at the world: to look at things that are usually ignored, to look into what may often be left in the dark such as the minutiae of life (rather than the monumental, the massive). This connects to the criticism of large buildings in the novel, such as the new Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris: a “hideous, outsize building” that has “monumental dimensions” (276). Instead, “domestic buildings of less than normal size–the little cottage in the fields, the hermitage . . . — are those that offer us at least a semblance of peace” (18).

The eyes that penetrate the darkness are also those of Austerlitz, as he is penetrating the darkness of his own history. After one of his mental breakdowns he begins nocturnal wanderings of London (126), during which he was “always irresistibly drawn” to Liverpool Street Station (127)–the place where he arrived as a child on the kindertransport.

It is in Liverpool Street Station that he begins to finally see into his own past, and we get that through a visual image of the Ladies’ Waiting Room being a place that had been “disused for years” (134) and where the light only penetrated about halfway down into the room (135). Then Austerlitz says,

From time to time, and just for a split second, I saw huge halls open up, with rows of pillars and colonnades leading far into the distance, with vaults and brickwork arches bearing on them many-storied structures, with flights of stone teps, wooden stairways and ladders, leading the eye on and on. … I felt as if the room where I stood were expanding, going on for ever and ever …. (135)

This architectural image connects to his memory, as he says that memories came back to him in this room, “memories behind and within which many thing much further back in the past seemed to lie, all interlocking like the labyrinthine faults I saw in the dusty gray light …” (136).

The darkness for Austerlitz hides the past–his own past as well as the past of Europe, as discussed in lecture, since his story is not unique. At the end of the novel the narrator is reading a book given to him by Austerlitz, by a man named Jacobsen who was similarly searching for traces of his family’s past. He grew up in South Africa because his grandmother left Lithuania after her husband died and so that part of the family escaped the “annihilation” that others of his forebears suffered (297). Jacobsen peers into a disused mine in South Africa:

The chasm into which no ray of light could penetrate was Jacobsen’s image of the vanished past of his family and his people which, as he knows, can never be brought up from those depths again. (297)

As we discussed in class today, Austerlitz doesn’t end up with full answers about his family–he doesn’t know where his mother went after Theresienstadt, and our last glimpse of him is when he is going off to try to find his father–and neither does Jacobsen. At least, so far as we know; the narrator says he reads “until the fifteenth chapter” of the book (298), but perhaps there is more, and more will be revealed. But the point is that we don’t get any more about either Austerlitz or Jacobsen in this novel; their stories are left unfinished.

Or rather, they are left for the reader to finish. Austerlitz states that he felt at times “as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last” (258), but if that’s the case then the future is left up to readers to determine.

But I am digressing … back to light, sight and darkness.

One other thing that is important in this set of topics is the narrator’s brush with losing his sight (starting p. 35). It is after he visits an eye doctor that he meets Austerlitz for the first time in nearly 20 years (39), and it is at this point that Austerlitz starts to tell the narrator his history as he has come to understand it. I don’t fully have a reading on this, but it surely is significant that it is when the narrator is losing his own sight that Austerlitz tells of what he himself has begun to see of his history. And as Miguel Mota said in our lecture this week, the narrator is equally as important a character as Austerlitz, and it may be that Austerlitz gives his photos to the narrator because he sees in the narrator someone like himself. The narrator, too, finds memories bubbling up in a dark place, in Breendonk, in a casemate (25).


Burying the past

I also found, related to the above, several images of things being buried and yet somehow returning to light. I can’t help but think of Freud and repression when we’re talking about burying the past, burying memories.

The clearest example of this is that, under the Bibliothèque Nationale was a warehouse that stored household goods stolen from Jews by the Nazis: “Les Galéries d’Austerlitz,” where military officers and their wives would go to pick out things for their own homes (289). This “whole affair is buried in the most literal sense beneath the foundations of our pharaonic President’s Grande Biblitohèque” (289). As noted in lecture, a place that is meant to house vast quantities of human knowledge is literally burying a past many people don’t want to remember.

This huge edifice of the library reminds me of the fortresses that are discussed in several places in the novel, attempts to defend ourselves against unwanted intrusions that nevertheless continually fail (14-18). Austerlitz’s own attempts at “self-censorship” fail (140), and after his memories begin to resurface in Liverpool Street Station he dreams he is in the middle of a fortress trying to find his way out (138-139). The fortress can also be a defense against what might come up from below, and burying the past with a monumental edifice like the library may also be a similar unconscious attempt at defense and censorship.

Other images of burial and reemergence of what has been buried include that the Liverpool Street Station is built on the site of the Bedlam mental hospital (129-130), and Austerlitz wonders whether “the pain and suffering accumulated on this site over the centuries had ever really ebbed away” (130). Nearby, the remains of the dead who had been buried one on top of the other in graves “dug through existing graves” because there were simply too many bodies to accommodate, are “brought to light” during renovations of Broad Street Station (130).

In addition, there is the village in Wales that was entirely buried under water when a dam was built, the village of Austerlitz’s foster father (51). Austerlitz imagines the inhabitants of the village still living there, underwater, and at times he “often felt as if [he] too had been submerged in that dark water” (52-53), which one could say he is insofar as a part of himself is also buried when he is shipped off to Wales. Austerlitz even thinks perhaps he sees the ghosts of those who lived in the village, those he saw in the photographs of residents (53-54). It’s not hard to imagine the ghosts being those of his own past.


There is much more that could be said about all of these issues, I’m sure, but these are the things that stood out to me, and hopefully some of this can spark new ideas in others!


What’s up with Midge in Vertigo?

Last week in Arts One we discussed Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” along with Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Yesterday in class I asked students to write down what they thought Midge’s role in the film was, and whether her character fits in some way with Mulvey’s analysis. I’m sharing their thoughts here, as well as a couple of my own.

Students’ comments

Not an object of male desire

  • Midge can seem a fairly unimportant character because she is not mysterious or “sexy” like Madeleine is
    • Because she is not/no longer an object of desire for Scottie, she loses her identity: women in the male gaze in cinema only are significant insofar as they are objects of that gaze
    • She ends up alone in the film, walking down the hall in the hospital by herself, sadly, in the last scene where we see her. After that she disappears from the film entirely.
  • She could serve to distance us from Scottie b/c we sympathize with her and dislike how Scottie treats her
    • An alternative view: that she broke off their engagement (according to Scottie) might give the audience a reason to forgive Scottie’s lack of attachment to her
  • She is a mother figure, taking care of him, not an object of sexual attraction
    • We talked in class about how in the first scene that we see them together, Scottie looks at the bra she is drawing and asks what it is, and she say: “It’s a brassiere. You know about those things, you’re a big boy now” (7:30).
    • She also says, when she is with him in the hospital after his breakdown: “please try,” “you’re not lost, mother’s here” (1:26:45).
    • There are other places in the film where we could see her taking on a kind of motherly role that we didn’t discuss in class…I’ll let students find them!
  • She represents a mature kind of love, whereas Scottie wants a more mysterious woman and a sexual passion kind of love

She might be a threat to Scottie because she is an independent woman

  • She doesn’t need his help like Madeleine does; she is an independent woman with her own job, unmarried. She helps him rather than needing help. Not the typical female role at the time.

Represents rationality, reality

  • She is rational, a sort of touchpoint for reality whereas Scottie is living in the realm of fantasy and falsehood by being attracted to Madeleine and then trying to make Judy over into his fantasy

Shows how Scottie is an object of attraction

  • That she is attracted to him, wanting to have a relationship, shows him in an enviable male position of being adored by a woman


My thoughts

I just have one other things to add, that I didn’t get a chance to bring up in class yesterday. Otherwise, the things I have in my notes are already mentioned above.

Midge is herself an investigator

She is intelligent, inquisitive:

  • She takes him to see Pop Lieble at the bookshop, who provides information on Carlotta; it is her connection that gets Scottie that information (I think one of the students also said this in what they wrote)
  • She investigates Scottie to some extent, like he investigates Madeleine:
    • she asks him what he is going to do after quitting the police force
    • she asks him why he wants to know about Carlotta
    • she asks him what he is up to when he disappears for awhile
    • she investigates the Carlotta painting and understands enough of what is going on to paint herself as Carlotta
  • So here too, she is not playing the typical female role but taking on more of a male role as observer, investigator

Coming to consciousness in the yellow wall-paper

Another post on readings we’re doing in Arts One: this week we discussed a couple of works by Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Our Androcentric Culture and “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” I gave a lecture on these works this week, and you can see the slides here if you’re interested:


I’m using this post to point out something I didn’t have time to talk about in class, either in lecture or in seminars, and see what others think.


A “phantasmagoria screen”

There are multiple ways to interpret the wallpaper itself; I found the one by Carol Margaret Davison in “Haunted house/Haunted Heroine: Female Gothic Closets in ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’” (Women’s Studies 33.1 (2004): 47-75) very intriguing:

A … detailed portrait of the narrator’s conspiratorial fears and suspicions is revealed in the yellow wallpaper that decorates her nursery bedroom…. Indeed, it becomes a type of phantasmagoria screen onto which is projected her sense of her situation. (60)

I like this idea of the wallpaper being a kind of screen that she projects her own sense of self onto, that she externalizes it onto, as if through projection of a film. It emphasizes the visual aspect of the story and the wallpaper.

Going off of this idea, I was thinking that as the story goes along, the narrator could be bringing her sense of self and her situation more and more into consciousness, to the point where she finally merges with the woman in the wallpaper because really, that was her all along. She had projected her sense of self outwards, and finally takes it back inwards, so to speak.

Towards the beginning of the story, she just finds the wallpaper confusing, uncertain, contradictory; then she dedicates herself to studying it (650) and slowly it starts to make sense to her–she starts to get some clarity about it. At first (650) she thinks she sees a kind of “formless figure” behind the main pattern, and then on p. 652 she starts to become certain that the figure is that of a woman. Laterthe narrator realizes that the woman is trying to shake the pattern to get out (654). I don’t think it’s only because I’ve lectured on Freud numerous times for Arts One that this reminds me of Freud and repression: one could say the narrator starts to become more and more aware of repressed thoughts and feelings as she begins to recognize them as those of a woman who is inside the wallpaper.

This could connect with her desire to have no one understand what is in the paper but herself, to keep it to herself; after she caught Jennie looking at the wallpaper the narrator says, ““I know she was studying that pattern, and I am determined that nobody shall find it out but myself!” (653). On a Freudian reading of the woman in the wallpaper representing repressed content, this is not something that the narrator would want other people to know. Of course, there’s a flaw here: if it were truly repressed content, then the narrator herself wouldn’t want to know it; repression is, by definition, a process of the mind keeping things from consciousness that some part of oneself doesn’t want to have surface. Still, even if the repression theory doesn’t fit exactly, the idea that the narrator is bringing to consciousness aspects of herself that she didn’t really face before could still work.


Going round and round

As I started thinking about this idea of coming to consciousness of herself, something else struck me. There are suggestions in the story that the narrator has actually been doing the creeping she says the woman does, during the day, inside the room. On p. 654 she points out that there is a strange mark on the wall: “It goes behind every piece of furniture, except the bed, a long, straight, even smooch, as if it had been rubbed over and over.” Who did the “smooch”? Possibly the room has held other women in similar situations, or the children who used to be in the nursery did it. But there’s also the fact that at the end of the story the narrator is going around and around in the smooch herself, her shoulder perfectly fitting into it. It’s possible she had been doing that for quite awhile before she came to consciousness of doing it. This would explain why Jennie says the yellow gets onto the narrator’s clothes (653); but it wouldn’t explain why Jennie says it’s also on John’s clothes. The narrator sees the smooch earlier in the story, but doesn’t realize that it was she herself that made it through going round and round the room.

The thing that really brought this idea out for me had to do with teeth marks on the bed, though. On p. 655 the narrator points out: “this bedstead is fairly gnawed!” And then shortly after that she says she got so frustrated at not being able to move the bed “[she] bit off a little piece at one corner –but it hurt her teeth” (655). She is clearly gnawing on the bedstead herself, and had she been doing that for awhile without realizing it?

So it could be that as the narrator comes to consciousness of her own thoughts and feelings, and her situation as a woman trapped behind “bars” like the woman in the wallpaper (the pattern on the wallpaper becomes bars in moonlight (653)), she also brings to consciousness what she has been doing during the day while John is away and Jennie thinks she is sleeping. Even while the narrator herself thinks she is sleeping (she says on the top of 654 that she sleeps a lot during the day).

At least, I think this is a plausible interpretation!


Day and night

One other thing that might be related here, if only indirectly: there are differences in what happens between day and night, including in what the wallpaper is like. By night the pattern becomes bars, as noted above, and the woman shakes the pattern to try to get out. In the day, in the pattern there is “a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind” (653). During the day the pattern is “like a bad dream.” And by day the woman is quiet (652), only moving around and shaking the pattern at night.

If we take a Freudian view (again), then the idea of unconscious material coming out in dreams could fit here: the woman moves, the woman is clear to the narrator at night, insofar as that is when one is usually asleep and dreaming. And perhaps the narrator is actually asleep and dreaming at that time, if during the day she is moving around and around as suggested above. But this interpretation would suggest that the narrator isn’t actually hallucinating but dreaming, and I’m not sure I want to go there. It diminishes the severity of what seems like a very real illness.

Here’s a perplexing thing to me about the day/night discrepancy: the woman in the wallpaper gets out during the day (654), but at night is stuck behind the bars. The narrator sees her creeping out of the windows in the daytime, and at the end the narrator says that she expects that at night she will have to back into the wallpaper (unless she tears it all off). I expect there is something going on here with space: something about seeing the woman outside the bars of the windows of the room during the day and inside the bars of the wallpaper at night, but I haven’t gotten very far with this. I think there are a lot of interesting things one might do with space in this story: why it should focus on wallpaper inside the walls of a room, with a lot of discussion of what happens outside the windows and the narrator saying she can see the woman both inside the bars of the wallpaper (at night) and outside the windows and their bars (during the day). I’d love to see an essay on this if anyone feels so inclined!


So, I’m curious if you have any thoughts about any of what I’ve suggested here…. Feel free to argue against my interpretation; it may not work entirely!


Reading the beginning & end of Lt. Gustl


In Arts One this week we discussed two German short stories:

Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Earthquake in Chile” (I just discovered that there’s a 1970s film version)

Arthur Schnitzler’s “Lieutenant Gustl” (the translation linked to here is different than the one we read; this is the one we read, and the one I’m citing below)

We focused on Gustl yesterdy in class, and my brain and emotions just weren’t working as well yesterday as they usually do (last day of class issues? who knows), and I didn’t get to do some close reading of the beginning & end of the story as I had planned to do. So I thought I’d write a bit about that here on the blog.


I noticed that one can get a great deal just from the very first page (first three paragraphs) of the story.

Impatience & concern with time

noun_517277_ccThe first thing we get from Gustl’s internal monologue is: “How long is this going to last, anyhow?” (107). We did discuss in class that a similar sort of sentiment is expressed on p. 141, when he asks himself, “How long will I keep sitting here?” (referring to sitting on the bench in the Prater). Right away we get a sense of his concerns about time, and even his impatience. He is at a concert at the beginning, and doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself and is impatient to leave.

There are many other references to his impatience in the text, including in the second paragraph of the story, which starts with him saying to himself: “Well, then, patience, patience! Even oratorios come to an end” (107). The most obvious example of his impatience is when he gets into the altercation with the baker. He is clearly being impatient trying to get his coat on the bottom of p. 117, and then the baker says to him, “Patience, patience!” (119). The baker also tells Gustl, “You’re not going to miss anything!” Gustl says something similar to himself, later, when he’s out wandering on the street: “slower, slower, Gustl, you aren’t missing out on anything, you have nothing left to do–nothing, absolutely nothing left!” (133). He also asks at one point “Why am I dashing along like this? None of my trouble is running away …'” (125). There are more examples of places that show him being impatient, but these are enough for now.

“I must look at my watch” is the second sentence of the story (107) (compare to the same statement on 143, when he wakes up in the park and wonders what time it is). He is frequently wondering what time it is in the story, along with being impatient. In the first paragraph he notes that it is “Only a quarter to ten?” (107). He hears the clock strike 11 after he leaves the theatre (125), thinks it must be past midnight in the park (141), wakes up at 3 in the park (145), hears a clock strike 3:30 when he’s walking back from the park (147), and notes that it’s 5:45am when he is getting close to his coffeehouse (157). He also decides to set himself the time of 7am to shoot himself and then later thinks, well, he could put it off another hour or so.

I asked in class: what should we make of his concern with time and his impatience? What might be the significance of these in the context of the story? He might be impatient at the concert because he is bored and wants to get out of there. But he also finds himself rushing when he’s out on the street. There might be something going on here in terms of him rushing ever forward only to be heading to his own death–so some kind of irony? I also wondered if it might signify that he is spending so much time looking outward, worrying about how he looks in the eyes of others, going to the places he is supposed to go in order to be seen, that he doesn’t slow down and self-reflect. But I don’t feel really strongly about that interpretation.

I think I still don’t have a good sense of the significance of his impatience.


Being out of place

Back to the first paragraph: after noting that he wants to look at his watch, Gustl says “probably not polite as such a serious concert” (107). This starts to bring up an idea that maybe Gustl doesn’t belong in the particular milieu. He doesn’t really know for sure how to act. We can see this also later in the paragraph when he wonders what kind of song it is and has to look at the program: “Yes, that is: oratorio. I thought it was a Mass.” I remember hearing last year when we discussed this book that Gustl is being presented as if he doesn’t really belong in this space. He doesn’t have the right knowledge to really understand this cultural event. He was given a ticket; he didn’t really choose to go because he wanted to attend this kind of concert. He even tells himself in the third paragraph of the story: “By the way, they sing very nicely. It’s very edifying–I’m sure!,” suggesting that he doesn’t really know if it’s edifying but figures it must be. Still, he doesn’t really get how it is so, if it is.

Gustl feeling out of place continues in the story, after the altercation with the baker. Gustl can’t believe what the baker did–he keeps asking whether or not it really happened, and as it is happening he can’t understand what the baker says (119)–because it doesn’t fit with his understand of social relations in his culture. Bakers just don’t do that, and then when it happened Gustl had no ritual to fall back on, no clear way to deal with the situation. When he goes out into the street he is figuratively lost, wondering where to go and what to do: “Where have I got to? What am I doing out on the street? –Yes, but where should I head?” (123). He wanders aimlessly, not really knowing where he is going until he just finds himself in certain places unexpectedly. At one point he even notes that he is sitting on a bench in the Prater “homeless” (143).


Worrying about what others thinkman with large eye watching over him

In the third sentence of the story Gustl worries whether someone will see him looking at his watch: “But who’s to see it? If someone sees it, then he’s paying just as little attention as I am, and I don’t have to bother on his account” (107). He’s concerned how he looks to others and what they think of him, but if others are doing the “wrong” things too by not watching the concert and looking at him, then he doesn’t need to worry about them. We get a great deal of evidence of Gustl being concerned what others do and will think of him throughout the story; I don’t need to enumerate them here as they’re quite easy to find!


Social manners, ritual, honour

In the second paragraph of the story, Gustl talks about how he got the ticket to the concert from Kopetsky, and since he is bored he thinks he should have given the ticket to someone else who would have enjoyed it more. “But then Kopetsky would have been insulted” (107). Here is an example of social manners he feels he needs to hold up–he is concerned about social roles and expectations. That’s also the reason why he doesn’t want others to see him looking at his watch, looking bored, at the concert–he worries that that isn’t appropriate in this social situation.

At the end of the third paragraph of the story, Gustl’s thoughts take on a tone of foreshadowing: “Yes, the day after tomorrow I may be dead and cold! Oh, nonsense, I don’t believe that myself!” (107). He is ostensibly talking about the duel with the doctor scheduled for the next day, but it could also foreshadow his plans later in the story to kill himself. Then the last two sentences of the third paragraph refers to the duel directly: “Just wait, Doctor, you’re going to lose your taste for making such remarks! I’m going to slice off the tip of your nose …” (107). So here we’re introduced to the social ritual of the duel.

These things are significant because the social manners and rituals that Gustl is used to are broken in when he gets into a scuffle with the baker. Before this, the story is setting Gustl up as someone who plays by the social rules, at least outwardly (while inwardly, as we discussed, he thinks all kinds of things that may or may not fit into the social rules and practices at the time). When the baker doesn’t play along, Gustl is left without a playbook, not knowing what to do.



I also find the very end interesting to read closely, along with the beginning. I’m just looking at the last paragraph here.

Time and being out of place

Gustl is back to paying careful attention to time. He schedules out the rest of his day: “In a quarter of an hour I’ll go over to the barracks and get a cold rubdown from Johann …  half past seven is rifle drill, and half past nine is formation” (163). He then refers to the duel at 4 that day. He now has plans again, he can schedule his day, he knows what he is doing and where he is going, as compared to being lost and out of place the night before.

By the time the story ends he is back in “his” coffeehouse, with the waiter he knows, and he comes back to himself and his plans for his life. He is full of confidence, whereas earlier he had started to wonder where he was, where he was going, and doubting himself (147, 151). By the end he says he’s going to insist that Steffi make herself available to him that evening, and he is certain he is going to win in his duel against the doctor–whereas earlier he was a little unsure (he thinks he might die in the duel (107, 127) and states that he is “unqualified to give satisfaction” in the duel because of what happened with the baker (125)).

So one might say that he starts the story in a place where he’s somewhat out of place (the concert) and then feels lost & homeless in the streets, but finally comes “home” to his coffee house by the end and feels more confident. He’s back in his usual military life with its usual time-table. Everything make sense again to him.

picture of an arrow going around in the circle and coming back to where it startedAnd as we discussed in class, he hasn’t changed much, if at all, by the end. His life goes back to the same things: Steffi, the duel with the doctor. Gustl even says on the last page that “No one knows a thing, and nothing has happened!” (163). The first part is true, but not the second–something has happened, and Gustl earlier suggests that it should matter even if no one else knows. But now that no one else knows or can know, for Gustl it’s as if nothing even happened at all. He has completely left it behind, and the event has left no mark on his life.


I don’t often do close readings of portions of texts, but I always find it valuable when I do, so I want to make sure to do more of these in class in the future!





Frontispieces in Blake’s Songs of Innocence & of Experience

This week in Arts One we discussed Songs of Innocence and of Experience by William Blake. We only had one seminar meeting discussing this week because there were no classes yesterday, Remembrance Day. In our one class we focused in part on considering, based on the poems in Innocence and Experience, what “innocence” and “experience” might signify for Blake. We also spent a little time in small groups discussing particular poems.

One thing we didn’t spend much time on, but that is important for the theme of the group we’re in this year, “Seeing and Knowing,” is the fact that the poems are bound up with images. We did talk about a few of the images while discussing poems, but there is so much more to consider. One set of images I wanted to discuss if we would have met in class yesterday, is the frontispieces for Innocence (plate 2) and Experience (plate 28).

Frontispiece for Songs of Innocence

There are numerous versions of Blake’s book, each coloured slightly differently by him (the engraving outlines are the same, but the colours he did afterwards are different). Here is one that is somewhat similar to the one in our book.

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Here’s a very different version of the same image, from the British Museum.

This image connects to the “Introduction” poem to Songs of Innocence, clearly, as it depicts a piper and a child.

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

There’s much to say about this poem in itself, but I’m only going to mention a couple of things I noticed: (1) the repetition of the song the piper is piping, several times, and (2) that the song changes in terms of media. Here’s what I mean: at first, the piper is just piping a song, some song of “pleasant glee.” Here, clearly, the song is just notes from the pipe. Then the child appears and asks him to pipe a song about a Lamb, so he does that–no longer just a song of pleasant glee of some sort, but a song about a specific thing. The child asks to hear it again (repetition), and weeps.

Then the child asks him to change the medium: “Drop thy pipe thy happy pipe / Sing thy songs of happy cheer.” So now we might consider that the song has words–though perhaps the piper could just be singing the notes without words at this point. Again it’s the same song, but with a voice rather than a pipe.

Next the child asks him to write the songs “In a book that all may read.” The sounds have disappeared into words and pictures: the piper makes a pen out of a “hollow reed” to do so. But notice that a “hollow reed” can also be something you can use to make music. And these poems are still “songs”–the aural aspect of them is still emphasized. They are not just words on a page, but meant to be heard as sounds (perhaps).

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this repetition and progression from sounds to words, though one thing it does is to preserve the sense of sound into the words; the piper starts with music in the “valleys wild,” and this music is transformed into a song about a Lamb that is repeated in different ways until it ends up in the book. It almost feels like we’re getting a kind of direct line from sounds in nature to sounds on the page.

Another thing that’s interesting is that the child on a cloud disappears when the piper writes the book; the piper no longer has the child for an audience, but instead writes songs in a book that “Every child may joy to hear.” Instead of the one child, the piper has many children (us) for his audience. And as we discussed in class, the “children” mentioned here could be the “innocence” aspect of adults as well as children.

I just want to say a few things about the frontispiece image, because mostly what I am thinking about comes out when we juxtapose it to the frontispiece from Songs of Experience. The image seems pretty straightforward: there is a piper who has stopped piping and is looking up at a child who is floating in the air and looking down at the piper. The trees form a canopy over both of them, which is something I noticed happening pretty often in Songs of Innocence (e.g., plates 6, 8, 9, 10 and more) and not nearly as often in Songs of Experience (e.g., there are more trees without leaves, such as in plates 32, 33, 42, 43 and more). There are sheep behind the piper, which might suggest that he is also a shepherd like in “The Shepherd” poem, which follows “Introduction.” Unlike in “The Shepherd,” though, the piper isn’t looking at his sheep, and seems to be walking away from them but stops to pay attention to the child. I have more to say about this image below.


Frontispiece to Songs of Experience

This version is the closest one I could find online to the version we have in our book.

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The main difference between the one above and the one in our book is that the figure with the winged child on his head is clothed in more of a blue-green colour in our text.

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

From Wikimedia Commons, public domain

This image might go along with the “Introduction” to Songs of Experience like the frontispiece to Innocence went with the “Introduction” poem there, but if so it’s a bit harder to tell, and I don’t have much in the way of thoughts about that. From Innocence, the Introduction is about the writer of the poems as a piper who seems fairly simple and connected to the “wild,” while in Experience the Introduction suggests the poems are given us by a “Bard” who has much more knowledge of the world (“Who Present, Past & Future sees”) and who is calling “the lapsed soul” and also Earth to “[Rise] from the slumberous mass.” The Bard is more insistent, more commanding, telling us that we must “Hear [his] voice” with an exclamation point right at the beginning of the poem. This speaker, far from simply piping songs of “pleasant glee” in “valleys wild,” has “heard, / The Holy Word”–he has knowledge of religion and scriptures, and is perhaps using that to help Earth to arise and return from her slumbering. As we see in “Earth’s Answer,” though, this is not so easy; she complains of being “Prison’d,” “Chain’d,” cold and frozen, and can’t seem to free herself.

But that’s not my emphasis here; what I’m more interested in is talking about the image in the frontispiece to Experience and comparing it with its counterpart in Innocence.

A couple of things strike me right away about the frontispiece to Experience: (1) the adult figure is holding the child figure, now winged, on his head, and (2) both are looking intently, straight ahead. In the Innocence frontispiece they are looking at each other, but here they are staring straight at us. I find it a bit unnerving, as if they are coming out of the page in a way, interacting with the reader in ways that aren’t common in the rest of the text. If we connect this image with the “Introduction” to Experience, then it could be that the adult figure is the Bard, and the Bard is speaking directly to us when saying “Hear the voice of the Bard!”. In that case, the speaker of “Introduction” wouldn’t only be speaking to Earth, who is addressed in the poem as well, but also to us, the readers, who are being addressed with the eyes of the two figures in the frontispiece.

The other striking difference to me in the two frontispieces is that in Experience the child figure is no longer flying free, but held down. It’s as if the child has lost its freedom in some way–it still has wings, but is grounded, not flying. There are many other interpretations possible here, and I’ve seen some things in my online perusings (which I didn’t keep track of like I should have!) saying that while the child figure in the frontispiece to Innocence seems like a child, this one is more like a cherub, a religious figure of some sort; this child also has a halo, signifying some aspect of divinity. So perhaps the adult figure here has experience with religion in a way that the one in the Innocence frontispiece does not.

There are still sheep in the background, and the adult figure is still walking away from them. It’s clear that in the first frontispiece he is walking with his left foot first and here it’s his right, but I haven’t been able to find anything in my minor efforts at research online to explain what might be significance of that.


I haven’t been able to come to any major conclusions by going through this exercise, and I bet we could have come up with more things to say if we had been able to discuss this together in class! I always learn more by doing that than by sitting, thinking and writing by myself. But hopefully this post points to some ways in which one might do a close reading of images (though it could be closer than I have done here), and perhaps will spark some new thoughts in some of the students for their essays!


Sights, Sounds and Words in Shakespeare’s The Tempest

In Arts One this week we discussed Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I just noticed that I have two other blog posts on this book from Arts One as well: see here for a post on the play and on the film Forbidden Planet, and here for one on how to interpret Prospero’s “magic” or “art” and why he might give it up at the end (also talking about Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books). I guess I like to write blog posts on this book!

I’m writing this one because we ran out of time to talk about something in our seminar meeting that I wanted to discuss. We were focused on reading the script, but this is a play, after all, and I thought it would be useful to look at some scenes from performances of the play to think about what we lose (or gain?) when we just have the words vs when we have the visual and the auditory elements of a play. Clearly, a play is much more immersive and vivid, but one thing it does is to present the audience with a particular interpretation of the words, by the way the characters speak, their facial expressions, their movements on the stage, the stage set, and more. If you just have the words, there are multiple interpretations one could give to them, multiple ways one could imagine the story going, whereas a performance narrows those options down by the way it’s staged (there can still be room for interpretation, but I think it might be lower…?).

This means the bare words alone give directors a great deal of freedom in how to stage the play. I picked a couple of examples of the same scene played two different ways, in the videos below.

First, we have two different versions of Act I Scene 2, in which Prospero and Ariel are speaking together for the first time, and after describing how he performed the storm, Ariel asks for his freedom and Prospero gets angry.

This one is from Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company, 2014. I can’t get the link to work with a start and end time for the clip, only a start time. So just watch until about 21:40.

And this one is from a Globe Theatre production in 2013. This one ends at the end of the scene so you can watch it until the end


There is quite a difference in how Ariel is played between these two scenes. In the first one it is clear that he remembers Sycorax well, and his imprisonment in a pine tree–indeed, his memory is played out directly on stage. Prospero in this scene seems cruel, torturing Ariel by bringing up this painful memory again. As someone said in class, Prospero could be said to be inflicting psychological torture on Ariel by reminding him of this experience every single month. It makes Prospero seem like he is using this memory over and over to express his power over Ariel.

In the second video, it’s less clear. The actor playing Ariel seems to have trouble remembering where Sycorax is from, and his facial expressions earlier in the scene suggest that he doesn’t really have that vivid of a memory of her. The way Prospero is played, he seems mostly to be exasperated at having to remind Ariel over and over what he has actually forgotten. This changes the dynamic between Ariel and Prospero considerably–if Ariel really is this forgetful, then we can see why Prospero gets upset at having to constantly remind him. Prospero could be read as less cruel and more just frustrated. Though, at the same time, one could argue that Prospero doesn’t really need to remind him of this experience over and over except to keep Ariel in his power. So maybe the ultimate function of this reminder is the same as in the previous video; it’s just that Prospero could seem less cruel.


I also wanted to point to something about how the characters move on the stage as indicating various interpretations that are left open by the mere words in the text.

In this clip from the Globe Theatre’s 2013 production, I think the way Caliban and Miranda move is quite telling. This one you can stop at around 5:30.

In this scene we find that Caliban is quite literally stuck in a “hard rock” (1.2. 342-343). He often stays low to the ground, something that we see often in performances of Caliban. Possibly it’s to signal that he is not entirely human (and so doesn’t stand upright), but it also shows his subordinate status to the rest of the characters.

In addition, I find it interesting how Caliban’s movements suggest both anger and desire for rebellion against Prospero, but also significant fear. He runs at Prospero, pointing and shouting, but then also cowers backwards, hiding behind a pillar. You can see this in particular when he gives the lines about how the island is his, from Sycorax, and Prospero has taken it from him.

Then, when Caliban talks about how at first Prospero was kind to him, he is suppliant, staying low to the ground. But when he talks about how he showed Prospero various good things on the island, he starts to get angry and stands up, walking around. Then he attempts a magical incantation against Prospero: “all the charms of Sycorax…light on you!”

Miranda’s movements are telling in this scene too. She starts off cowering behind a pillar, clearly afraid of Caliban. But then when Prospero reminds Caliban of his attempted rape of Miranda, and Caliban says he would have peopled the island with Calibans, Miranda can’t take it–she gets angry and comes out shouting, moving quickly towards Caliban, who immediately cowers and drops to the ground.

Finally, we get a clear demonstration of Prospero causing Caliban pain, around 4:40. When Prospero says he is going to fill Caliban with cramps, Caliban writes on the ground–clearly, Prospero is already doing so. This we can see from the stage production; it’s not necessarily clear in the text.


These are just a few examples of what one can see when looking at performances vs. just reading the words. I haven’t talked about things like set or costumes, which also can convey meaning through vision. Reading the text of a play is in some ways just a small sliver of the meaning one can get from the work, but at the same time, it’s more open to multiple interpretations because the words can be said in so many different ways, with different facial expressions, different movements, etc. So reading the text could leave one’s imagination freer than watching a performance!


Sketchnotes on Plato’s Republic

We are talking about Plato’s Republic this week and next in Arts One, and over the summer I started getting interested in doing sketchnotes–basically, trying to take notes with both images and words.

I have found this a really useful method for forcing myself to take in information and make it my own, to condense ideas down to what I think is most important, and to put that into my own “words,” so to speak. I think it helps me remember things better than just copying down as many words from a lecture or presentation as I can by typing on a keyboard (what I would otherwise be doing).

I have a long way to go before my drawings are attractive (and I’m slowly working on that), but I’ll be sharing my sketchnotes on our Arts One lectures throughout the year, here on my blog.

Here’s the first set!










What’s the focus of Sophocles’ Oedipus?

Oedipus & the Sphinx, pottery decoration from circa 470 BCE

Oedipus and the Sphinx, c. 470 BCE, by Carole Raddato, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 on Wikimedia Commons


In Arts One last week we discussed Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. We put a bunch of questions/topics for discussion on the board and didn’t get to all of them (unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence in Arts One, but fortunately, it’s because students are so engaged and want to discuss!).

I wrote a question on the board that I had myself:

What of the Oedipus story is included in the action of the play and what occurs before or after? What takes place on stage versus off? And what do these say about what the play is about, what it’s focused on, and what message we might get from it (if any)?

We didn’t have time to discuss this question, so I thought I’d take the opportunity of doing a blog post to provide some of my own thoughts. As with all texts we read in Arts One, my interpretation is only as strong as my evidence–like those of students as well. This is to say: I am not arguing that mine is the only way to answer this question, just because I happen to be the instructor in our seminar group.

What takes place within the action of the play itself?

There are numerous elements to the Oedipus story, including:

  • the oracle to Laios and Jocasta that their son would kill his father, and his subsequent abandonment to die as a baby
  • his growing up in Corinth thinking Polybos & Merope are his biological parents
  • the oracle’s message to him that he was going to kill his father & marry his mother
  • his killing of Laios, answering the riddle of the Sphinx, marrying Jocasta
  • the plague in Thebes, Oedipus trying to find the murderer of Laios and in turn discovering who he is, what he has done, and that the oracle was right; his self-blinding and asking to be exiled from Thebes
  • his exile from Thebes and what happens afterwards

Only the second to last bullet point, above, is what takes place within the action of this play (Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone address the last bullet point). More specifically, what happens is that Oedipus vows, as king, to do what Apollo said in his oracle to Kreon and find the murderer of Laios, and he continues to search and search for the truth until he does. It’s kind of like a murder mystery in modern terms, except that the audience knows all along that Oedipus himself is the murderer.

So we might say that one focus of the play, at least, is on the seeking of knowledge, and gaining self-knowledge. One could argue that it’s also about a king trying to save the citizens of his state from a plague, trying to do fulfill his kingly duties by doing what the god Apollo commanded–find the murderer of Laios and punish him.

But there’s another aspect to what happens within the action of the play as well: there is a focus on the issue of the knowledge of humans vs. the knowledge of gods. Oedipus is at first treated as a god by the priest in the beginning (and Oedipus himself seems to be answering their prayers as if he were a god at the top of p. 33 in our version), and yet the audience knows that his knowledge falls far short of that of the gods. So we see him not only gaining knowledge and self-knowledge by the end of the play, we see him in the process realizing that he is not at the same level as the gods (though, at the end, he knows as much as they do, so do what you will with that …).

The Chorus states that only Zeus and Apollo see and understand “the dark threads crossing beneath our life” (46), and then later they reflect on the nature of human life and how we are all like Oedipus:

man after man after man
o mortal generations
here once
almost not here
what are we
dust ghosts images a rustling of air
nothing nothing
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
we are you
we are you Oedipus (78)

According to the chorus, then, Oedipus does not have the same knowledge the gods do, and neither do the rest of us. Humans are only “dust ghost images a rustling of air”–very little, or perhaps “nothing.”

Similarly, he comes to realize, during the play, that the oracles all were true (and that Teiresias was right about what would happen to him). Despite Jocasta (and Oedipus) saying that we don’t need to pay attention to oracles, it turns out that they were right even when humans think they have discovered that they aren’t.

What takes place off stage or on stage?

Partly this question is going to be answered by the nature of staging drama in ancient Athens. There was a stage with very little in the way of backdrops or props. From what I understand, showing Jocasta hanging herself or Oedipus blinding himself would have been difficult or just not part of the normal way of doing plays at the time. Still, we can maybe glean a little from what takes place onstage vs. off stage in the play.

On stage

  • Mostly conversations: Oedipus and the chorus, Oedipus and Kreon, Oedipus and Teiresias, Oedipus and Jocasta, Oedipus and the shepherd, etc.
  • Mostly Oedipus is on stage except a few times when he’s not there
    • The chorus is sometimes on stage alone
    • Jocasta also prays to Apollo without Oedipus at one point
    • Jocasta, the chorus, and a messenger speak without Oedipus; she learns of Polybos’ death before Oedipus does
    • A servant comes out of the palace to tell the chorus & audience that Jocasta has hanged herself and Oedipus has blinded himself

Off stage but still within the action of the play itself

  • Oedipus sends for Teiresias (he says on p. 36 that he has done so, but Teiresias hasn’t come yet)
  • Kreon hears of Oedipus charging him with treason; on stage p. 46 he says he has come to answer those charges
  • Polybos dies; onstage, a messenger comes and tells Jocasta and then Oedipus
  • Jocasta hangs herself; Oedipus blinds himself

So we see that most of the action onstage is Oedipus talking to others, and most of it is him learning the truth about the murderer of Laios (himself). What happens off stage are mostly things that don’t have to do with Oedipus trying to find the truth (except for the first bullet point, above, but that’s a fairly trivial action). This again suggests that Oedipus and his quest for knowledge is at least one of the foci of the play.



I don’t know if this exercise has revealed anything that people weren’t thinking already, but I think it’s useful when one is considering a play to think about what parts of a story the dramatist chooses to include within the action of the play, what takes place onstage and off, to glean some insight into what the play is about. I may try this again with the next play we study in Arts One this year, Brecht’s Galileo. And I’ll be thinking similiar things about the films we watch. And I suppose really, one could also do something similar with novels…


I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, questions, disagreements if you have them! Just write in the comment area, below.

Mystery and identity in City of Glass

In Arts One this week we discussed City of Glass in two versions: the original novel by Paul Auster, and a graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli. We only had one seminar discussion on these two works rather than the usual two we have in a week, due to the Easter holiday. As a result, there is a lot that we didn’t get to talk about.

Paul Auster, 2008, by David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Paul Auster, 2008, by David Shankbone on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

I puzzled over many things in these works, but the one I decided to write about here started off with me asking myself the question: this is a novel about a writer of mysteries, but is it a mystery novel itself? And if so, what is the mystery and how might we solve it?

We did talk a bit about this question, as it came up when a student brought up something similar in class. But I wanted to share some of the thoughts I came up with when thinking about it before class. And perhaps, while writing them down here, I’ll come to some further clarity. Or maybe not.

I didn’t read any secondary sources on these texts before writing this, and I expect there is a great deal that has been written about these very questions. I try to challenge myself to come up with my own interpretations before reading anyone else’s. So it could very well be that what I say below is proven wrong by someone else’s more expert reading. I’ve tried to provide textual evidence to support this as a possible reading though.

What’s mysterious?

We don’t have to take this as a mystery novel, of course, and for reasons we discussed in class it might be better thought of as a novel about mystery novels. But I still find some things mysterious in it. Of course, these are not wrapped up nicely in answers as in traditional mystery novels:

  • Why are there two Peter Stillman Sr.’s?
    • In lecture a possibility was discussed that this could be an embodiment of the possibility of the story of a writer going in different directions, and which direction is chosen is somewhat arbitrary.
  • What happens to Peter Stillman Jr. and Virginia Stillman? Why do they disappear?
  • What happens to Quinn? Where does he disappear to?
  • Who is the “author”/narrator of the novel?

Now, maybe some of these questions are not meant to have answers. But I did pursue some thoughts about the last two.

What happened to Quinn at the end?

I came to an answer for this pretty quickly; the graphic novel helped me see it more clearly. None of this is to say that this is the answer, but it’s one that I think makes sense.

When Quinn goes to the room in the Stillmans’ apartment and basically fades away while writing in the red notebook, the darkness starts taking over more and more from the light, and he has less and less time to write in his notebook (Auster 199). And the notebook is running out of pages. These two things are correlated:

The period of growing darkness coincided with the dwindling of pages in the red notebook. Little by little, Quinn was coming to the end (Auster 199).

Quinn was coming to the end of the red notebook, but also to the end of himself: after he discovers that someone else is living in his apartment, that he has no more home, no more job with the Stillmans, he realizes that he has “come to the end of himself” (Auster 191).

Quinn as a character on a page

This suggests a close connection between writing in the red notebook and the existence of Quinn himself. Of course, he existed as a character before buying the red notebook, but at the end, as the notebook runs out of pages, and Quinn slowly stops writing in it, the darkness starts taking him over–he fades away, one might think. His existence at this point and the existence of pages in the notebook seem to coincide. Which in turn suggests that he is little more than a character on a page; when the pages run out, he runs out.

At least, he runs out as the person he was. Just as he had become a different person while keeping watch over the Stillmans’ apartment (Auster 183), he might become a different person when the pages of the red notebook run out. He tries to remember his life “before the story began” (Auster 195), the books he had written as William Wilson, his former agent; but it was difficult and he soon “waved good-bye” to his former life (195). As he continues to write in the notebook, he stops writing about himself: “Quinn no longer had any interest in himself” (200).

He disappears, but perhaps he just disappears as Quinn.

Quinn as a character on a page in the graphic novel version

David Mazzuchelli in 2012," by Luigi Novi on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY 3.0. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

David Mazzuchelli in 2012, by Luigi Novi on Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY 3.0. © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

The graphic novel could be said to illustrate the idea of Quinn disappearing as the pages in the notebook disappear. As one of our students talked about in class, the panels during the period that Quinn is in the room writing in the notebook start to become more chaotic. Whereas before they were regular, with even spacing between even if they were different sizes, at this point they start to have chaotic spacing until they completely fall apart towards the end. This student said that before that, there are indications that we are looking into the story and Quinn’s life as through a window, but now I can’t for the life of me remember what he was saying about this and how it changes when the panels fall apart (I hope he soon posts his argument on our blog site!).

One thing this does for me is make it feel less like we are looking in on a story that is happening as if in “real life” (at least, a sense of real life as one gets in fiction), and more like we are reading a story on a page. When the panels fall apart towards the end and become clearly like pieces of paper, it brings to mind for me the fact that these are pieces of paper we are reading, that this is a book, that the story isn’t, after all, real and Quinn is actually just a character on a page.

Of course, this really is what he is; a character on a page. But the book is foregrounding this, making us aware of it, pulling us out of the immersion in the story where we have a sense that he’s kind of real…in the story at least. I’m reminded of what we talked about with Laura Mulvey, how she discusses that film sometimes tries to keep us immersed, to make the camera disappear, as it were, or at least fade into a simulated reality so we don’t pay attention to what the camera is doing. And how film can bring the filmic medium and the camera to the forefront, such as with the 360 degree pans we watched in class from her film Riddles of the Sphinx.

In the graphic novel, in the two-page spread on 130-131, he himself depicted pictorially in a way that suggests this as well. On the bottom of 130 and on 131 he is shown diving or falling into water with a pen in his hand, the pen going first into the water and the rest of his body following. It’s as if he is writing his way into the water. But the water on the page turns into just blank white pages that fall away into the darkness on 131 and 132-133. He is disappearing into the pages; he is nothing more than the pages in the book.

Another interesting thing about this, though, is that as he himself as a character experiences darkness (the more he starts to disappear, to fade way as a character, as Quinn, the more he experiences darkness), the pages turn white. Again, this suggests he exists only on the page. As he disappears, the page becomes blank.

Who is the author/narrator?

So Quinn the character on a page disappears as he stops writing in the notebook. Who was he written by? Paul Auster the author, of course, who wrote the whole book. But what about the book within the book, as Auster the character in City of Glass talks about with Cervantes’ Don Quixote? Who is the author/narrator in Auster’s novel City of Glass, as he appears towards the end of the text (starting on p. 173)? Maybe there isn’t supposed to be a clear answer to this, and maybe I’m just making stuff up, but here are some thoughts.

The graphic novel could suggest one answer to this question, in part through different fonts. If you look closely, there are different fonts for different characters:

  • “author”/narrator: like typewriter (1, 89, 107, then at end)
  • Quinn and the voiceovers in the story (not the narrator as standing out as a narrator) have the same font
  • Peter Stillman Jr. on the phone (6, 11) and in person (starting p. 15) have different fonts than those for Quinn
  • Max Work has a strong font p. 7
  • Peter Stillman Sr has stylized capital letters (66-67, etc.) and his speech bubbles also have sharp corners
  • Daniel Auster’s speech bubbles have slightly different font (95)
  • On 102-103, the panels have a different font to show that these words are what Quinn is writing in his notebook

One thing the graphic novel suggests with font styles is that perhaps Quinn himself is the noun_159333_ccauthor/narrator who appears towards the end. The very last page starts off with the narrator speaking in the typewriter font, and then the last sentence is back in the notebook. I suppose there are a number of ways to interpret this, but one way could be to connect the typewriter narrator to the Quinn that was writing in his notebook. The same words that appear in Auster’s novel as coming from the same voice, in the graphic novel appear in two different fonts, one clearly connected to Quinn as the character who wrote in the red notebook.

Remember that “Quinn did all his writing with a pen, using a typewriter only for final drafts” (Auster 62). We might think that the notebook pages are his first drafts, and the typewriter is when he came later to write the story up in a final form.

So though Quinn as a character on a page disappears as the story winds down to a close, Quinn as an author starts to appear. The “author” as narrator starts to make conspicuous appearances as Quinn starts his vigil outside the Stillmans’ apartment (Auster 173), which is arguably when he starts to fall apart. Then, when Quinn the character disappears completely the “author” comes in and takes over.

The graphic novel suggests this reading in another way as well. The last three pages of the graphic novel are written in a different style, as we discussed in class: they don’t have clear panels, and the images seem more realistically drawn. That would connect to the fact that at this point in Auster’s novel, it is purely the “author”/narrator’s voice we are getting. But I noticed something else: the pictures on the first of those last three pages mirror pictures on p. 113, from when Quinn was doing his watch of the Stillmans’ apartment. At that point, Quinn leaves his seat and walks to try to get some more money, so it looks to me like the path away from the Stillmans’ apartment.

If this is the case, then why would the same path away from the Stillmans’ apartment be being followed by the author/narrator at the end? After all, in that part of the story the author/narrator is going towards the Stillmans’ apartment, if anything, since he and Auster go there to try to find clues about Quinn. Again, one possible reading of what the graphic novel is doing is that the author/narrator is coming out of the apartment because that is where he, Quinn the character, last was. Quinn the author/narrator emerges from the place where Quinn the character disappeared.

Authors putting themselves in books

Yes, I’ve gone pretty far in my flights of fancy here. But I think there’s a certain logic to it. And it fits with Paul Auster (the author) putting himself into his own book as a character–maybe Quinn (the author) is putting himself into his own book as a character. Maybe Quinn the author had to write himself away as the character who is in despair, who doesn’t really exist except as William Wilson or Max Work; maybe he had to get rid of that self in order to emerge as a writer again.

Since his wife and son died, and before the case with the Stillmans began, he wrote only as William Wilson. In those five years, Quinn had stopped being an author, and had already started to fade away:

Quinn was no longer that part of himself that could write books, and although in many ways Quinn continued to exist, he no longer existed for anyone but himself (Auster 9).

He had, of course, long ago stopped thinking of himself as real. If he lived now in the world at all, it was only at one remove, through the imaginary person of Max Work (Auster 16).

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 11.39.24 AMPerhaps, when he starts writing about the Stillman case in the red notebook, he starts to exist as an author again. Note that in the notebook where he starts writing about the Stillman case, and in my reading where he starts writing the story that later becomes this book with him as the author/narrator, he puts “Daniel Quinn” on the notebook: “It was the first time in more than five years that he had put his own name in one of his notebooks” (Auster 64). If the notebook is connected to this book itself, where this book is the final draft in typewriter form and the notebook is his earlier notes, then this, too, suggests to me that he is the author/narrator who appears later. He is able to become a writer again, in that case.

But he is no longer a writer as Daniel Quinn the character, though, which is a problem with my reading. The author/narrator refers to Quinn as having disappeared. And Quinn as character does. As noted above, he disappears as Quinn the character, but might emerge as someone else. Maybe Daniel Quinn the writer, or maybe an unnamed author/narrator. In either case, the author/narrator says at the end that Quinn “will be with me always.” Why? Because he is a part of the author/narrator, a former self, I’m arguing.

Don Quixote…what’s up with that?

So if this reading makes any sense, then it would be like Auster writing a novel in which he creates a character as himself, and Quinn doing the same. But I expect there’s a lot more to this idea of authors putting themselves in books than I’m getting, with the whole Don Quixote story within this novel. Don Quixote, in Auster’s (the character’s) article, doesn’t so much write his own story as orchestrate others writing his story with him as a character in it. I went down that rabbit hole, trying to connect Daniel Quinn to Don Quixote as we are invited to do with the initials being the same, but came up empty on that path.


Well, this has turned into a gigantic post (over 2500 words!). I think I’ve exhausted all the ideas I had on these topics, but would be happy to hear what others think!


Visual Language in Tezuka’s Buddha Vol. 1

In Arts One this week we read Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha: Kapilavastu, which is the first volume in Tezuka’s Buddha series.

As usual for Arts One, there was so much to talk about and I wanted to raise some issues and questions that we didn’t get time to discuss. The problem is that I left my book in my office and am now trying to write a blog post over the weekend with just my notes. Not so great when you’re writing about manga, where the images matter a lot and I might not remember all aspects of them. But I’ll try.

Visual language

One thing I focused on this week while reading Buddha Vol. 1 is what Cohn & Ehly (2016) call “visual language”:

Just what is meant by ‘‘visual language’’? Humans use patterned ways of communicating in the visual-graphic form (i.e., drawing) just as they do in the verbal form (i.e., speaking). However, there is a terminological gap between these modalities with regards to the system employed in this process: we speak in a spoken language, but we draw in __?___. The answer to filling this gap is a ‘‘visual language” …. (19)

A visual language, as I understand it, is a way of communicating through images without words (because words themselves can be taken as images, as we discussed today in class–the Japanese characters seem to “fit” better in some of the images than the English letters/words because of their shape).

Cohn and Ehly (2016) go on to talk about something like words in visual language:

… graphic patterns are stored as schemas of form-meaning mappings in the long-term memory of their creators, similar to the way that verbal patterns are stored as schemas (words) in spoken languages of the world (Cohn, 2013b). To the extent that people might share the same cognitive patterns, we might say that they draw in a common visual language. (19)

So there can be image-meaning units like there are word-meaning units. Cohn and Ehly (2016) call these “visual morphemes,” and a list of some of the visual morphemes they say exist in manga, according to their research based on what Japanese researchers have said and their own study of many manga themselves, can be found here: Morphology of Japanese Visual Language.

Now, it’s worth noting that their research is not without its critics, of course (as any good research isn’t).  in this post Nicholas A. Theisen calls out Cohn for essentializing “Japanese” visual language as if we could focus all visual language in manga down to a single kind of essence. He also criticizes Cohn (and others) for making arguments based on a biased empirical sample:

In formalist Japanese manga studies discourse (e.g. Natsume, Takeuchi, or Yomota), the basic features of manga in toto are first identified in comics for men/boys and only thereafter are the stylistic conventions of many shōjo/josei manga seen as variants thereof.  An honest question: why isn’t it the other way around?  Why aren’t shōnen/seinen the variants?

So I’m not going to make any claims about a particularly “Japanese” visual language here.

What I’m interested in is just paying attention to the idea of visual language and how we can see certain images as regularly suggesting a certain meaning/range of meanings, just as words will be regularly connected with a (range of) meaning(s).

Visual language in Buddha: Kapilavastu

Where can we see in Tezuka’s text particular images/symbols that are regularly associated with a meaning that we can get just from the image itself? Of course, there are lots of things like drawings of faces, people, horses, ducks, etc., that are representative of certain entities in the “real world.” What I’m interested in are the more abstract images.

Motion lines

So, for example, movement is expressed in certain regularized ways in this book and in other comics too. Quite often, motion lines are used to show how an object is moving or has moved within a panel. Here’s a simple example:

Fast Aeroplane with Motion Lines, Derivation by Chris McKenna of a work by Carlos Latuff, Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

Fast Aeroplane with Motion Lines, Derivation by Chris McKenna of a work by Carlos Latuff, Wikimedia Commons, licensed CC BY-SA 4.0

We see these a lot in Buddha Vol. 1, and we also see a different kind of motion line in numerous places in the text as well. Instead of the lines streaking from an object, they take up more of the background of a panel but still suggest motion. This page has a good example of what I’m talking about–see the last image in the vertical series of motion lines (since the page doesn’t say one can reuse the images, I can’t re-post the image here).

One example (and here’s where I wish I had my book with me!) is when Chapra first gets on the horse that Tatta has possessed, and before he finds Budhai being attacked by crocodiles. One of those panels has a background with lots of horizontal lines and the horse is galloping (I’m pretty sure this is from p. 129, if my notes are correct). The lines aren’t going from the horse, but are behind the images in the panel. In one of the panels on p. 129 Chapra is on the horse who is rearing up (if I remember correctly) and the lines in the background are circular rather than horizontal like they are when the horse is galloping. I still get a sense of movement from the circular motion lines, even though clearly the horse and rider are not spinning around in circles. But I’m not sure what kind of motion I’m getting from it, or why the circles might make sense in that context.

What’s interesting to me is that for me, the motion lines like the ones coming from the aeroplane above just feel more natural, they feel more like they are indicating motion. The ones that are in the background of the frame feel less so. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, argues that these latter kinds of motion lines are more common in manga than in American or European comics (112-113), and perhaps I am just more used to expressing motion with a different kind of “visual language” than the lines in the backgrounds of panels.

Other symbols
Many of the visual morphemes in Buddha Vol. 1 made sense to me, probably because they’re part of a common visual language that I understand.

For example, there are a number of places where things hit one another (swords on shields) or people hit one another, and there are stars that seem to come out of the impact point. That’s a common symbol I’ve seen a lot in cartoons and North American comics. Similarly, when Tatta is disoriented on p. 102 there are stars that look like they’re going around in a circle (is that right? again…working from notes w/o a book) and then in another panel there are those little funny circle things that look like he is disoriented, like those icons with four lines on top of this guy’s head:
It’s clear to me that Tatta is dizzy, partly by the context of what is happening, of course, but also because of those icons that just shout drunkenness or disorientation to me.

In addition, the use of musical notes on pp. 50, 232 and 240 make sense to me. The ones on p. 50 are when Chapra is about to get his cloth back after Tatta stole it, and it seems to me they are signaling him being happy about it–he is reaching out to the cloth and excited to be getting it back. Later, I think on 232, the girls who come to fawn over Chapra have both hearts and musical notes above their heads–the hearts clearly signaling love or desire and the musical notes signaling, perhaps, something like joy or excitement. Chapra has music notes near him on p. 240, but there I think he might actually be singing what the words are saying.

Symbols I am not sure about

Then there are some I find more puzzling, one of which I think I get and the other I don’t.

First, there are a lot of speech bubbles with just ellipses in them in this text. Looking at the context of those, it seems that the characters are not saying anything, and somehow the ellipses mean more than just pure silence. They are somehow a meaningful silence. As I mentioned near the end of class today, they suggest a silence that calls attention to itself. So then I did a web search on ellipses in manga, and Wikipedia says this (okay, yes, maybe those who wrote it don’t know what they’re talking about, but it resonates with how the ellipses feel to me):

In manga, the ellipsis (i.e. three dots) is also used to express silence in a much more significant way than the mere absence of bubbles. This is specially seen when a character is supposed to say something, to indicate a stunned silence or when a sarcastic comment is expected by the reader. (Wikipedia, Speech Balloon)

The one that’s still puzzling me, though, is the symbol that looks a bit like a mushroom that has been cut from the ground and still has some stem on it. It’s found on p. 94 (I think in a panel with Budhai laughing), then on 202, 210 and 216 in the scene with the snake (in two of those it is near the snake’s head when the snake is dead or dying), and again on 377 and 379 (my notes don’t tell me what is going on on those pages). I just didn’t get what that might refer to. And it occurs often enough that I don’t think it’s just a fluke; it seems to be there on purpose, for some reason.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of this, and/or some particular symbols you found interesting or puzzling…