To get lost is to learn the way

The above is a proverb of African origin, though I don’t know where exactly it’s from. I’m writing this at 4AM after much wrestling with no, that’s an unnecessary aside. I will probably get lost while writing this, and that’s… okay.

When I began reading Things Fall Apart, what immediately struck me was the prevalence of proverbs. There were proverbs in the narrative, in the dialogue, everywhere. There’s even a passage that addresses their importance!

Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. (Things Fall Apart, p. 7)

The bolded part could be argued to be a proverb in itself. You’ve gotta really love proverbs to write a proverb about proverbs. The word “proverb” is going to stop looking like a word by the end of this post. So what could this meta-proverb be talking about?

Well, for one, we’re looking at a metaphorical proverb, and it’s relating speech to eating….  I’m not really familiar with the culinary uses of palm oil, so why don’t we replace it with peanut butter, and words with bread. We eat bread all the time, many different kinds of bread depending on whatever factors. While we may have a variety of bread to eat, bread on its own can get pretty boring. So we add peanut butter to the bread, to make it more interesting, and because life without peanut butter is meaningless.

Likewise, proverbs make language more interesting, because they attempt to explain concepts in a creative way. Kids won’t eat their celery sticks? Slap some peanut butter on them! (The celery, not the kids…) If we take my hyperbole from earlier, this creativity adds meaning to language that may not have been there before, makes it more… edible? comprehensible?

Then again, while enriching language, proverbs can lead to redundancy.

There must be a reason for it. A toad does not run in the daytime for nothing.” (Things Fall Apart, p. 20)

What could have been said in once sentence has been said twice. This is especially irritating in real life, when you hit that point where you’ve heard enough of those damn proverbs and could live without hearing them again. Because of this, I happen to like these Ibo proverbs since they’re so different from what I grew up with. Perhaps the repetition isn’t that bad, though… Things Fall Apart is quite cyclical after all, so it only makes sense for the characters to speak with repetition. In the above quote, the proverb is not only a repetition, but a repetition with difference, since the proverb serves to emphasize the former point. And what could make the point clearer than the somewhat silly image of a toad running in daytime? It’s funny, it stays in your mind, and the meaning will be easier to understand.

All these proverbs give the impression of this whole book being a big folk tale, the kind of tale you hear your mother tell you before bed. (Though this tale would probably ruin their night, 0/10, would not recommend.)

Considering Achebe wrote this book as a response to Conrad, I see it as Achebe’s way of saying “Hey! We Africans are people just like you are, and here’s our culture!” For all of Conrad’s lovely prose, he doesn’t make the Africans of his novella seem really human. Since proverbs can say a lot about a culture and its values, they are an easy way to communicate said values. (Though proverbs can often contradict each other, just like cultural values.)

 

 

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Jane Austen and zombies

When I first saw the reading list for Arts One: Remake/Remodel, I was immediately struck by Shaun of the Dead. Having seen this film about a year ago and very much enjoying it, I was thrilled to think we were going to study this zombie comedy… but I was also pretty confused. Why was it on the list, and what on earth could be gleaned from it in connection to whatever book we were going to read alongside it? This book turned out to be Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Prior to this, I had never read a novel by Austen. Her books were among the many classics I had written down on a reading list, stuck up on my wall as a constant reminder that I procrastinate even on the things I want to do. (I also have lists of movies, TV series, anime/manga, documentaries, video games… yeah.) In fact, I will bluntly admit that as I type this blog entry, as the only person in this seminar who volunteered to write about Austen and zombies, I have only read about half of Northanger Abbey. (Bad Apsara!) Despite this, something Aja said during seminar yesterday struck me, and after shyly recoiling from expressing my thoughts, I decided to recollect them into this blog entry.

Near the end of yesterday’s seminar, Aja pointed out the scene in Shaun of the Dead where Shaun and co. decide to imitate the behaviour of the zombies in order to pass by them unnoticed. She found it completely ridiculous that the zombies were unable to distinguish the humans from themselves, and that in other zombie films, they may have the ability to make this distinction through smell or other senses. I think she may have mentioned that this was a result of the film’s genre as a parody, and I would like to develop this thought.

Parody films are primarily intended to make fun of a particular genre and its tropes/conventions. Through the use of often clever humor (because let’s admit it, some parodies are downright crude – I’m looking at you, Friedberg and Seltzer…), they point out how ridiculous some of these tropes are, and while this may or may not be their intention, they can also contain a larger message about society.

“Ever felt like you were surrounded by zombies?” – this is the tagline shown in the promotional posters for Shaun of the Dead. It speaks to a phenomenon that can largely be observed inside a public bus. Sit in a bus and observe the people around you. They are most likely staring into space, sleeping, listening to music.. Whatever it is, they are idle, not really aware of anything around them, and may look almost dead if not for a small twitch of the arm or a blink. If you were to suddenly blast some music from a boom box, if you tried to spark conversation with somebody, if you did pretty much anything that defied this zombie-like state, people would probably stare at you and think you very strange. A well known Japanese proverb states that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” This means that if you stand out, you will be criticized, and in more extreme cases, be hurt or even killed. This is the situation that Shaun and co. find themselves in when trying to walk through a neighborhood filled with zombies that can and will lash out at them for still being human.

This idea of fitting in to avoid conflict can be found in Northanger Abbey.

Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind, is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid. A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can.

(Northanger Abbeypage 81.)

Here, Austen is satirizing the concept that ignorance leads to being liked, especially in the case of women, who God forbid should know anything about the world. Indeed, in the first half of the novel, our protagonist Catherine seems to be a pretty weak character, constantly being pulled back and forth by others, and doesn’t seem to have any agency of her own. She doesn’t even seem to realize when her love interest Henry Tilney is insulting her.

“Miss Morland, no one can think more highly of the understanding of women than I do. In my opinion, nature has given them so much, that they never find it necessary to use more than half.”

[...]

It was no effort to Catherine to believe that Henry Tilney could never be wrong. His manner might sometimes surprize, but his meaning must always be just: – and what she did not understand, she was almost as ready to admire, as what she did.

(Northanger Abbey, page 83.)

This reminds me of the scene in Shaun of the Dead, where Shaun goes about his daily routine without noticing the obvious zombie apocalypse that is taking place. While Catherine is probably more a case of naiveté, and  Shaun’s a case of being hungover, they both speak of a larger problem: when you’re conditioned to certain way of life, you cease to notice it. Shaun is used to seeing people walk or sit around looking like they’re dead inside, so why should he notice when a bunch of actual zombies come into the picture? Catherine was likely raised to believe that women hold a very different role in society than men do, and that women exist to please men. It is therefore unsurprising that she latches on to Tilney’s backhanded compliment (which I found both horrid and hilarious), seeing only the compliment and not its problematic second half.

The above may have been a far-fetched link… I dunno.. This entry is kind of a prep for my eventual essay, that will focus on the use of humor in both Northanger Abbey and Shaun of the Dead.

What is philosophy?

This is gonna be a short one, I have an essay to work on! 

While searching for a definition of philosophy, I found an interesting (anonymous) answer in the comments on a blog post here: http://insocrateswake.blogspot.ca/2011/05/defining-philosophy.html

In other disciplines, you learn more and more about less and less, until you know everything about nothing. In philosophy, on the other hand, you get to know less and less about more and more, until you know nothing about everything.

I really liked that. And that’s all for tonight.

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Inaugural post!

Oh, I’m in university now. Shit just got real.

The buzz of first and second week having passed, we are now settled in our class routines (more or less), and my procrastination has already begun… though I’ve managed to keep it at bay for the most part. I have this thing where I’ll start studying/reading something, and then knowing I’ve already started gives me a false sense of security… next thing I know, I’m in class and haven’t finished!

I’m getting there though.. The diligence with which I tackled Kant’s interpretation of Genesis impressed me. I had to dissect each and every paragraph to make sense of his mumbo-jumbo, and I still haven’t finished. As I write this, I’m reminded of the blogs that Arts One students are expected to write… (I was originally writing this in a Word document, as part of my usual personal ramblings) Looks like I’ll be procrastinating even more by creating one. Good thing I have a little experience with WordPress! The web designer in me would normally spend time designing my own look for this blog, but I think this pre-made theme will do just fine.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.”

One of my favourite passages of all time is Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Putting my love of cats aside, I like to think of “we’re all mad here” as my motto. I think we’ve all got to be a little mad to enroll in Arts One. After all, one could lose their sanity trying to answer all the big questions of the universe! But if you let go a little and think outside of the box (which I hope we can agree requires some degree of madness), it can prove to be an enlightening experience for all. The fact that we’re doing Arts One, as opposed to a run-of-the-mill schedule, shows that we want more out of first year than lectures, which, arguably, could drive some people mad. If you don’t like my use of the word “mad”, think of it like this:

madness

Not that this was my intention, but I might as well tie this all in to what we’re actually studying! (aka putting more effort into a semi-optional blog than my actual homework)

There’s a fine line between madness and brilliance, and it seems to me that God treads this line a little. Of course, to define God as either mad or brilliant is to reject the idea that he is perfect, because the former traits imply that his reasoning ability varies. We can see this after the Great Flood, when he speaks to Noah.

And the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. (Genesis 8:21)

Yeah, shoot me, I prefer the King James version. Much more poetic.

This apparently all-knowing God seems to regret what he did. So much for being perfect! Also, if he is so perfect, how could he be capable of such emotions in the first place? After all, he expresses (what appears to be) much wrath when he discovers that Adam and Eve had eaten what he had explicitly forbidden them. But I guess it would make for a very dull story if God was akin to a robot, and even a robot’s “perfection” is limited by the capabilities of its maker… aaaaaand I’d better stop that train of thought before I go all Star Trek on you guys!

Let us suppose God is perfect. Then he would have known exactly what would happen with his first humans and the tree of knowledge.  He also placed that tree within their reach, so it’s not like he tried to stop them from approaching it. And since he created these pseudo-human beings, he must have programmed them with the ability to reason. Why would he give them that option if not because he intended for them to take it? Was he curious what they would do? But curiosity contradicts perfection. It seems that any attempt to explain God’s actions contradicts his very being, since one shouldn’t need to explain what is perfect.

I’m gonna give myself a headache if I go on like this, and descend into the very madness I had described earlier! Gotta love Arts one.

On a lighter note, why on earth does almost every verse start with “and” ? And the waters returned… And the ark rested… And the waters decreased…

It’s all really repetitive. Is it because these stories were supposed to be passed on orally? That would make sense, since when telling someone a story, we tend string all of our sentences with “and”.