Category Archives: Arts One texts

On sympathizing with Abigail Williams

In Arts One this week we talked about Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. In both our seminars this week there were presentations by students that led me to question my initial response to the play (okay, actually, quite often I question my initial responses to texts during seminars! But I’m going to write about one such instance here).

Specifically, the students asked if we might see Abigail Williams, who is easily cast as a villain in the play, in a somehow more sympathetic light. I have to admit that I really didn’t like Abigail when I read the play the first, second or third times (all this term; this is the first time I’ve read the play–or at least, so far as I remember). I thought I’d use this blog post to think through the more nuanced view the students brought up in class.

What students brought up in class about Abigail

One student pointed out how the people who end up accusing others in the play are those with very little power. Tituba begins the accusations in Act One, pointing to Sarah Good and Goody Osburn. Then Abigail takes up the thread and names those two, plus one more person. Then Betty speaks and names more. Though, as far as I am aware, there may have been accusations by others in the Salem witch trials, in the play it is only by those with little power: a slave, young girls (several of whom are servants). Can we think of this as a way for these women to gain some degree of power in their society? Does this alter our perception of Abigail or the other girls at all? Does the fact that I may not be doing justice to what the student was asking about, but these are the thoughts I got from her presentation.

Another student on a different seminar day asked something similar as part of a larger set of questions, though this time focused on the title of the play. If a crucible is a vessel in which something is subjected to a great deal of heat and pressure, might we see this being the case for Abigail, and might it be that she responded in a way we can sympathize with? Again, I may have missed the point the student was getting to, exactly, but this is what I remember/what I got out of it.

We had some very interesting discussions on these issues (not as much on the second presentation, as (my fault) I didn’t leave enough time for us to discuss it all together as a group after smaller groups talked about it), with some good points brought up. Among them:

  • Responsibility for what happened to the people who were accused cannot all laid on the girls. They made false accusations, yes, but who acted on them? Who believed them and brought trials that led to convictions and deaths? Those who were older and who should have been wiser.
    • Though I suppose that in those times and in that place it is at least understandable why things happened as they did. There was a real fear of witchcraft, among other evils. We can see why it happened, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still condemn it and say that those who were in positions of power should have stopped it.
  • In the historical events, Abigail was much younger than she is in the play: she was around 11 or 12, whereas the play turns her age to 17 (according to the Introduction to our text, in order to bring her age closer to Proctor’s (who was really in his 60s but in the play is 35) so he could introduce a sexual relationship between them). It is not terribly uncommon for children to blame others when they are suspected of wrongdoing, I think (not all children do this, of course, but hearing things like “I didn’t do it…it was her!” is not entirely uncommon).
    • When you think about Abigail as a real, historical figure at so young an age, I think she becomes much more sympathetic. It becomes more understandable that she would react this way, trying to get out of being blamed, and she may have less of a deep sense of the consequences of her actions.
    • Can we see her as sympathetic as an older child, at 17? Does the age difference change how we see her actions? I think it does, obviously, but at the same time I can see that a 17-year-old is still quite young, and her reactions to her situation may be understandable due at least to her age. But there’s more (next point).
  • Sure, Miller changes her age and Proctor’s age to make a sexual relationship between them more…what? Plausible? Excusable? Acceptable? But is it, really? Can’t we see Proctor in a negative light for taking advantage of a young girl? I’d like to say this is something I had thought of before our seminar meetings, but it isn’t. I was enlightened by the students (happens often).
    • I’m rather embarrassed I didn’t see it this way. He had the power in the relationship; she was a servant and a young girl, he was head of the household, older, and as a man already had more power in the society. This is not to say he didn’t have a lot to lose as well as she, for being branded a “lecher” at that time and place was very bad. But when she responds to him putting her off by trying to get him back, hoping to marry him by replacing his wife, it’s not a terribly surprising response from someone so young and vulnerable.


Some of my thoughts after seminars…

The play does, of course, show Proctor’s sexual relationship with Abigail as something to be lamented, but not because of the age difference or power difference, but because he has betrayed his wife and his own sense of himself. Nothing about what it has done to Abigail. In fact, she is a “whore” in Proctor’s eyes (Act 3), and it seems that is how the audience is meant to see her as well. We are to sympathize with Proctor, who has committed a sin against himself and his wife, and we are to see Abigail as a scheming, murdering harlot. Elizabeth Proctor, who seems to be presented quite sympathetically in the play, says of Abigail: “The girl is murder! She must be ripped out of the world!” (Act 2). And, I think, that is the tone we get about Abigail throughout the play.

I do think, now, after seminars and thinking about it further, that though Abigail and Betty and the others reacted very, very badly, if we see the events of the play just from Proctor’s point of view we miss the possible effects of the sexual relationship on Abigail and see her just as a spiteful, cruel, manipulative, delusional teenager. The play even has a deleted Act (included in our version of it as an appendix) in which Proctor and Abigail meet in the woods, and in which we are told, through stage directions, that Proctor “see[s] her madness now.” Perhaps this makes her more sympathetic (she has mental issues rather than being simply cruel and evil), but it does not do justice to thinking about her position as a teenager with little power, in love with an older man, and doing whatever she can to get back what he should never have given her in the first place.

Also, I noticed a pattern of people confessing, or charging others, when they themselves are threatened. In Act One, Abigail feels threatened because Parris has seen more than she realized of what they did in the woods, and she names Tituba as having called the devil. When Hale asks her what she is concealing, and whether she has sold her soul to Lucifer, Abigail turns when Tituba walks in the room and accuses her immediately: “She made me do it! She made Betty do it!” (Act One).

Tituba, for her part, confesses after she hears threats against her person by Parris and Putnam: Parris says he’ll “whip [her] to [her] death,” and Putnam says she “must be hanged!” (Act One). Is it any wonder that Tituba confesses, when threatened in this way? And Proctor himself even notes that such a thing is likely, in Act Two, when talking to Hale: “There are them that will swear to anything before they’ll hang ….”

Then Mary Warren changes her tune in Act Three after being threatened. She was sticking to the story that she never really saw spirits (also probably said because she was threatened by Proctor, actually–see the end of Act Two), and then when Danforth  says “You will confess yourself or you will hang!,” Mary breaks down shortly afterwards and accuses Proctor of forcing her deposition. As she does so, she connects him with the devil, by saying that “He wake me every night, his eyes were like coals and his fingers claw my neck, and I sign, I sign ….”

So might we not say that the girls are acting to protect themselves in the face of threats, of feeling they are vulnerable and about to face very serious accusations or punishments themselves? Does this help us to possibly see Abigail in a more sympathetic light?


I have purposefully argued just the side of saying yes to seeing her sympathetically, ignoring the things in the play that show her in a negative light, to see if I could move over from my initial negative view of her. I think I have. But this is not to say she’s a purely innocent victim in the play, spotless and flawless. This was an exercise in changing my mind. And I’m very glad the students in my seminar gave me the impetus to do it!

Student questions about Fanon

Frantz Fanon, on Wikimedia Commons, by Pacha J. Willka, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

Frantz Fanon, on Wikimedia Commons, by Pacha J. Willka, licensed CC BY-SA 3.0

In Arts One this week we’re discussed Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952). I asked students in my seminar group to write down some questions they have about the book, or topics they’d like to discuss. Since we won’t get to all of them in class today, I’m posting them here for the students to be able to refer to and think about.

There were some that we talked about a bit on Wednesday, so I’m not including those. I also didn’t include some of they were pretty similar to ones already on the list.

General questions related to the text

  • Do all of us have to wear a “white mask” to some extent? How does the seeming need for a mask in Fanon’s time compare for its need in Western society today?
    • How does the awareness of one’s own mask affect the way that one perceives the masks of others?
  • Can this text be applied to other racial/ethnic/marginalised people (i.e., Chinese-Americans or Jewish people)? What about women?


Questions specifically about the text

  • Is Fanon the narrator throughout? (Who is talking in Chapter 5, “The Lived Experience of the Black Man”?)
    • Christina’s additions: What is the significance of the use of the first person singular in this chapter? What does it do? Does it help you to perhaps be able to connect with the experiences related there better (or not)?
    • Note that in much of the text, Fanon uses the first person plural, “we,” but in Chapter 5, in the conclusion, and in some parts of the intro he uses “I” (e.g., intro xi-xii, xvi); also uses “I” on 67, 200 (maybe elsewhere).
      • What do you make of these different choices of pronouns in the text? Might he be trying to do different things rhetorically or otherwise by using “we” some places and “I” in others?
  • I still don’t fully understand how the whites are also alienated. What are they alienated from?
  • What is the main idea of this book?
  • How does Fanon’s discussion in this text demonstrate a conformist attitude amongst the black and/or white people?
    • Is the conformism the fact that they try to fit into the white culture?
    • Or is it perhaps that they so easily accept the “livery” that they are forced to wear?
  • How can we reconcile the idea of realizing an existentialist blank slate among all of humanity as a solution to racism with Fanon’s comments about people needing an external outlet for their aggression and the other seemingly universal psychological tendencies that lead to racism?
  • How relevant is the psychoanalysis portion of the book if psychoanalysis isn’t really practiced today and is mainly conjuctural?
  • What is Fanon’s view of being vs becoming? It seems like he agrees more on being and that the black man always “was.” Does this contradict with his ideas on existentialism?
  • Does all the poetry distract from his rationalism and “scientific” views?
    • Christina: note, though, that he says he’s not going to try to be objective (67, 200), so at least objectivity is not part of his purpose (still, rationality does seem to be).
      • What do you think the purpose of the quotes from poetry are in Chapter 5?
      • Just as FYI, some of the theorists of négritude worked through poetry to try to create a new, positive black identity (among other kinds of texts), and Fanon is quoting from some of them here.
  • What lies beneath the “black skin” (the idea of “blackness” invented by white colonial bodies)? Is it something achievable, or is it like Plato’s Form of the Good or Kierkegaard’s theory of Faith (incomprehensible/impossible to articulate)?
    • What is Fanon’s theory of what is at the centre of a person (under the masks)? Is it freedom? I’m not quite clear on this.
  • If there is no black identity, is the negritude movement based solely on skin color? If so, isn’t it trapping the black man in his skin and the views of others?
    • What happens to African cultural roots present in the Americas if there is no common black identity?
  • Fanon seems to berate the woman of colour in Chapter 2 despite the fact that he says the “stigma” towards black people is socially constructed. Was this a form of misogyny or was there some overarching purpose in how he said what he did?
    • Christina: Does he also criticize the black man looking for the love of a white woman in chapter 3, in the same way? Or does the woman of colour seem to be more criticized?
    • Christina: I noticed also a cringeworthy section on p. 134, where he talks about a fear of rape being possibly a desire for rape. This is related, I think, to the psychoanalytic view of a defense mechanism called “reversal,” where an unconscious desire or fantasy is switched into its opposite in order to get past the “censor” (Freud’s term) that will not allow the unaltered unconscious content into consciousness. Still, it suggests at least a lack of understanding of the deep horror and violence of rape.
  • When Fanon criticizes Mannoni in Chapter 4, is it mainly because of the fact that Mannoni describes the dependency complex as a precolonial problem? (Where Fanon argues that it’s because of white society that the inferiority complex exists among blacks.)
    • Christina’s reply: Yes, that’s definitely one part of it. See, e.g.,
      • 65: we can’t endorse this sentence of M. Mannoni: “The fact that when an adult Malagasy is isolated in a different environment he can become susceptible to the classical type of inferiority complex proves almost beyond doubt that the germ of the complex was latent in him from childhood.”
      • 66: why does Mannoni “want to make the inferiority complex exist prior to colonization? Here we see the mechanism at work in psychiatry, which explains there are latent forms of psychosis that become evident following a traumatic experience.”
        • It’s like saying varicose veins are caused by weak vein walls rather than standing for 10 hours a day
      • “The reactions and behavior born out of the arrival of the Europeans in Madagascar were not tacked onto pre-existing reactions and behavior.” (75)

      Fanon criticizes Mannoni for not paying enough attention to how it’s the colonial situation that is the root cause of the neuroses.

      • “When the white man arrived in Madagascar he disrupted the psychological horizon and mechanisms. …. Since a new element had been introduced, an attempt should have been made to understand the new relations” (77).
        • “The arrival of the white man in Madagascar inflicted an unmistakable wound. The consequences of this European irruption in Madagascar are not only psychological, since, as everyone has said, there are inner relationships between consciousness and social context” (77).
      • “As for the ‘dependency complex’ of the Malagasy, at least in the sole form in which we can understand and analyze it, it too originates with the arrival on the island of the white colonizers” (88).

      But Fanon also criticizes Mannoni for not recognizing that with colonization came a new identity for the colonized (see next point, below).

  • What does Fanon mean by the “Malagasy no longer exists”? (77)
    • Christina’s reply:
    • Earlier in the chapter Fanon says that “…since Gallieni the Malagasy has ceased to exist” (74)
      • Joseph Simon Gallieni was made French governor of Madagascar in 1896; in 1897 he outlawed the Malagasy monarchy and exiled the queen
      • I think Fanon means here that whatever identity they had before being colonized has disappeared, and what they have now is a creation of their interaction with the colonizers: ““What Monsieur Mannoni has forgotten is that the Malagasy no longer exists; he has forgotten that the Malagasy exists in relation to the European” (77).


Finally, I have a few questions too, that I’d be interested to talk about (but I doubt there will be time in class today!)

My questions

  • What do you make of the first line, about not expecting an explosion today b/c it’s too early or too late?
    • He talks about explosions and fragmentation elsewhere too:
      • In chapter 5, the narrator says that when he is fixed by the white gaze he loses his temper: “I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me” (89)
      • “The black man is a toy in the hands of the white man. So in order to break the vicious circle, he explodes” (119).
      • He talks about being “dissected” by the white gaze on p. 95
    • Is the reference on p. xiii to no longer shouting related to there not being an “explosion today”?
  • In Chapter 5, the narrator talks about how “the image of one’s body” under the white gaze is “an image in the third person” (90). Then, later, he says that he experienced his body no longer in the third person, but in “triple”: “I existed in triple” (92).
    • What interpretation can you give to the “third person” and existing in “triple” here?
  • Fanon says on pp. 2 and 21 that when one speaks a language one also appropriates a culture. How might this be the case? Do you agree?


Gilman, “The Yellow Wall-paper”

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900. From Wikimedia Commons, public domain.


In Arts One this week, we’re reading parts of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and all of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wall-Paper.”

I didn’t gauge the time well in class yesterday, and we didn’t get as much time to talk about Gilman’s story as I wanted! My fault. So I thought I’d post some thoughts and some of my questions here, trying to work through my own ideas on my questions. And maybe some of this will be useful for my seminar group (and it’d be great if anyone wants to add their thoughts too, in the comments!).

The wallpaper patter and confinement

The wallpaper in Gilman’s story has both a main pattern and a “sub-pattern,” one underneath the main one; it’s in the latter that the “creeping woman” can be found. The main pattern, in the dark, “becomes bars,” and the woman behind it “takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard,” trying to get out. The main pattern, then, is somehow linked to confinement, imprisonment: “she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so ….”

I connected this confining main pattern to the social role expected of women, or the actions of others that confine them (like the narrator’s husband). That seems a pretty easy interpretation to make, but then I wondered: why is this pattern described as so chaotic, so hard to follow, so contradictory?

  • “…when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions”
  • “I start … at the bottom … and I determine that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion. I know a little of the principle of design, and I know this thing was not arranged on any laws of radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry, or anything else that I ever heard of.”
  • “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind. … You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream.”

This would suggest, on the reading above, that somehow the expectations of women, the actions towards women, the ways women are talked about, are confusing, hard to follow, even contradictory. I think this could make sense as an interpretation; in particular, Beauvoir talks The Second Sex about how women are viewed in contradictory ways (page references are to the Vintage edition, translated by HM Parshley, not the newest translation by Borde and Malovany-Chevallier): “She is an idol, a servant, the source of life, a power of darkness; she is the elemental silence of truth, she is artifice, gossip, and falsehood; she is healing presence and sorceress; she is man’s prey, his downfall, she is everything that he is not and that he longs for, his negation and his raison d’etre” (143). Woman represents life (birth) but also death: life leads inevitably to death and decay; the mother is the source of life and flesh, and flesh is what dies (154). Woman is “the chaos whence all have come and whither all must one day return” (147). Beauvoir and others have pointed out how images of woman have included both the idea of us being innocent and pure, morally good (Virgin Mary. e.g.), as well as evil temptresses (Eve, e.g.) and seductresses.

So we can see that women have been talked about and treated in contradictory ways, at least in the West (which is what I know the most about). I don’t know to what degree such observations were common in Gilman’s time, but perhaps we could find some example in the story of how the way the narrator is treated, or how she acts towards John at first, is confusing, not clear, or contradictory? I don’t know for sure; I’m just putting this out as something to consider.

The woman in the wallpaper

As we discussed in class, it seems pretty clear that the narrator somehow “becomes” the woman in the wallpaper, or the two were the same all along. I was thinking that this woman was a kind of unconscious expression of what the original narrator thinks and feels and wants to do. The narrator (I’m going to call her “Jane” in what follows for clarity of discussion, and we talked about how Jane is probably the woman at the beginning of the story) does express to her husband that she doesn’t want to be in that room, and that she wants to leave the house generally, and she does express in her writing that she wants to continue working even though her husband tells her she ought not do. So it’s not that Jane’s desires to escape the confinement placed upon her by her husband are unconscious and need to come out in other ways (e.g., Freud’s notion of the “return of the repressed”), but she is not able to actually do what she wants–she can’t leave, and she can’t continue to write except in hiding. So I think it makes sense to say that the woman in the wallpaper could be an expression of Jane’s desire to get out of her own confinement, and the ending being a kind of fulfillment of that desire to some extent. Jane/the woman in the wallpaper does get out of the wallpaper, and she has torn it down so they can’t put her back. (I’m writing here as if the two people become one at the end, but that need not be the only interpretation!)

But if we interpret the wall paper patter, the main pattern, as the confining social/political/economic/cultural position of women generally, has she really escaped this? Perhaps to some extent, insofar as if she is now considered “insane” then she doesn’t have to live up to those expectations anymore. But, as I realized while discussing this story with one of the students in the seminar during office hours after class, Jane/the woman in the wallpaper is just going round and round in the room at the end; she doesn’t really get out in any significant sense. She even says that she doesn’t want to go outside, because “outside you have to creep on the ground, and everything is green instead of yellow” (last page). So she’s still in the room, still confined, and just going around and around as if she were exploring the edges of her confinement without really wanting to fully escape.

I’m puzzled, then, by this ending of her going around and around in the room. She is still creeping, just as the woman in the wallpaper did while she was in the wallpaper. She hasn’t been able to escape this “creeping,” which we discussed in class (? or maybe it was when I met with one of you in office hours?) as her having to hide, to do the things she wants (like write) without anyone else seeing. She still is doing that, still “hiding” to some degree. So is there any emancipation in any sense by the end, even though she’s out of the wallpaper?

Day and night

In class I raised the question of why it would be that there is a difference between day and night in how the woman in the wallpaper acts, how the wallpaper itself looks. Here are some examples in the text:

  • [as already quoted above] “On a pattern like this, by daylight, there is a lack of sequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind.”
  • “At night, in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, in becomes bars! The outside patter i mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be.”
  • “By daylight she [the woman in the wallpaper] is subdued, quiet. I fancy it is the pattern that keeps her so still. It is so puzzling. It keeps me quiet by the hour.”
  • At night the woman in the wallpaper “crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over. Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”
  • later in the story, the woman in the wallpaper “gets out in the daytime” and “creep[s] by daylight.”

As one of the students in the seminar noted in class on Friday, Jane, too, starts to become active at night and quiet during the day at one point in the story: “I don’t sleep much at night, for it is so interesting to watch developments; but I sleep a good deal in the daytime.” But then later, Jane notes that like the woman in the wallpaper who started to creep by daylight, she does too: “I always lock the door when I creep by daylight.”

Though there are interesting things to say about the relationship between Jane and the woman in the wallpaper, I’m focused at the moment on the day/night discrepancy. Why would the woman in the wallpaper at first be active only at night, and shake the bars only “in the very shady spots” but keep still “in the very bright spots”? One great idea that was brought up by one the students in class was that Jane has to act correctly in the daylight, do what she is supposed to, say what she is supposed to, and has to hide her other actions and feelings as if in the dark. Then, towards the end, it all starts to come out clearly even in the daylight. Note that when the woman in the wallpaper gets out it is also during the day.


I hadn’t thought of this at all when reading the story, but one of the students in class on Friday pointed out a kind of temporal discrepancy in the narrative. In most of the story Jane is writing about what she thinks at the time, what has happened in the past week or few days–all things that would seem normal for a kind of journal. But at the very end, when the woman in the wallpaper is getting out, it turns into even more of a narrative of what is happening right at that moment. In particular, she says, “Why there’s John at the door! It is no use, young man, you can’t open it! How he does call and pound! Now he’s crying for an axe.” It becomes more of a narrative about what is happening at that very moment.

Then another student point out that in the last bit after those lines I just quoted, the narrative turns into past tense. It changes abruptly from what-is-happening-right-now to what the narrator “said,” what John “said,”  how he “fainted,” etc. Why should this be?

Honestly, I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about. Anyone have any ideas?

Student questions about Northanger Abbey

In Arts One, I ask two students per seminar meeting to come to class with questions for us to discuss. Since I was sick on Friday, they didn’t get to ask their questions in class. I decided to post them on my blog instead so others in the class could see them and possibly give comments (if they have time).

This week we talked about Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Edgar Wright’s film Shaun of the Dead. I wrote up some of my thoughts on these works in my previous post. Here are two sets of questions about Austen’s book.

First set of questions on Northanger Abbey

Northanger Abbey is basically a coming of age novel which revolves around the personal growth of Catherine. While, obviously, Austen intend to satirize the popular gothic novels of her time with this story, it is indisputable that the novel also examines several different themes, such as friendship and personal development.

My questions are:

1. How does Austen make us, the readers, empathize with characters in her novel, especially Catherine? In what ways are her experiences similar to what teenagers face nowadays?

2. How do Austen convey the growth of Catherine as a young woman? What literary techniques does she use to put forth this idea?

3. [An unrelated question, but one I find worth pondering on…] How effective is Northanger Abbey as a symbol? How does it relate to Austen’s intention to satirize gothic novels?


Second set of questions

-Most critics agree that Northanger Abbey has feminist undertones, but how effectively does she transmit her thesis? If so, what does the argument consist of?

-The book has characters that don’t fully comply with gender expectation of the time (Catherine initially being a tomboy and Henry having unusual knowledge of feminine things like clothing). What can perhaps be drawn from these characters? How does this shine light on the construction of gender in the society of her time, and of all societies?

-Given that the novel has a satirical nature, how can we infer what was Austen’s ideal constitution of a female? Is it like Catherine, or the opposite?


It would be great if students from my seminar group (or anyone else) could give some comments on one or more of these below, since we didn’t have class. But I also realize that it’s now Saturday, and a long weekend, so that may not happen…

Northanger Abbey, Gothic Novels, Zombies and Video Games


From A Memoir of Jane Austen, by her nephew JE Austen-Leigh, published 1869-1870. Downloaded from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

I am unfortunately not feeling well enough to be in class today for Arts One, though I can lie down and type on the computer so I’m putting some thoughts on this week’s book and film on my blog.

First up: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Northanger Abbey and gothic novels

The narrator

I was really struck by how the book begins: the first couple of pages are all about what Catherine is not like–she is not a heroine in the traditional sense of a gothic novel. So our first impressions of her as the main character are often negations: she is not this, not that, etc.

Then, many of the narrator’s interruptions into the flow of the story do something similar: they talk about how this story does not fit what one might expect. Here are just a few examples.

  • One might expect that Mrs. Morland, on Catherine’s departure, would warn her about “the violence of .. . noblemen and baronets,” but she knew little of these (9).
  • There wasn’t “the refined susceptibilities, the tender emotions which the first separation of a heroine from her family ought always to excite” (9).
  • The brief account of the Thorpe family is all you’re going to get; not what you might expect to take up the next 3-4 chapters (21).
  • When Catherine sees Henry at the theatre and thinks he is upset with her, she did not have the right kind of heroic feelings, but rather “natural” ones (66).
  • The narrator emphasizes the difference between how Catherine is returning home and how heroines usually return home (172).

After thinking about this for awhile, along with the fact that the narrator comes in so often and pulls the reader out of the flow of the story, reminding the reader that this is, after all, a fictional story, I came to the following thoughts (which I’m happy to have disputed!).

Narrative intrusions like the ones noted above bring up the genre of gothic literature, making you think about it, while also distancing you from it so you can look at it critically. They not only signal that this book is not typical of a gothic novel, but also that it’s going to be a book about gothic novels. Further, they signal that this is a book about people reading gothic novels, and what it does to them. We get this in the first few pages as well, when the narrator tells us that Catherine had been in training for a heroine from ages 15-17 (7) and then of course when Catherine and Isabella shut themselves up together to read such novels (23).

What is the book saying about gothic novels?

We talked in class on Wednesday about how it looks to be suggesting that they make young women too suggestible–given what they do to Catherine. But remember from lecture that Prof. Burgess emphasized how Catherine comes to the realization that she has voluntarily allowed herself to be influenced too strongly: “… it had all been a voluntary, self-created delusion, each trifling circumstance receiving importance from an imagination resolved on alarm, and every thing forced to bend to one purpose by a mind which, before she entered the Abbey, had been craving to be frightened” (146). Prof. Burgess suggested that maybe Catherine is misusing the novels in some way, not being critical about them (remember the last point in lecture: the book and the film both argue that we should be critical consumers of media).

Taken together, all this suggests to me that maybe the problem is not the existence of gothic novels so much as our reading habits. Remember also from lecture that Henry and Eleanor read and enjoy gothic novels, and they aren’t portrayed as the most negative characters in the text (while John Thorpe, who is portrayed negatively, says he never reads novels (32)). And one thing the narrator’s intrusions into the story do is to keep us from being too engrossed in the story, reminding us it is a fiction, a book, and this can encourage critical reflection on the story itself (whereas otherwise we might just get caught up in the narrative.

But there is something else too. There is the fact that Catherine was right about General Tilney: he really is a villain, even if not the kind she thought he was. This made me think that perhaps the book is suggesting that there are plenty of awful, evil things in the real world to pay attention to, to give us enough sense of fright, that we don’t need to get lost in fictional stories of horror. Or at least, in addition to those, also think about the nastiness that is going on right around us. There are numerous examples of everyday evil in the text:

  • Women are fairly powerless in the social situation at the time:
    • As Henry says about dancing and marriage (and perhaps numerous other things): “man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal” (54).
    • Eleanor points out that her power in the house is really nothing; she just has to do what the General says (166).
  • Social customs and the economic structure did require that one had to pay attention to money in marriage (though not as much as Isabella and John Thorpe and General Tilney did–Catherine’s family was not rich, but not destitute either).
  • People did act in manipulative ways: e.g., Isabella and John manipulating Catherine into going with them on a carriage ride when she had already told Eleanor she’d go on a walk with the Tilney’s (70-72)
  • The General’s behaviour toward Catherine in kicking her out of the house, of course.

Perhaps again this is a matter of saying read gothic novels critically; don’t just think that those kinds of evils will happen around you, but be aware of the kinds that already do.

Catherine Morland’s character

I really wanted to spend some time in class today discussing Catherine as a character. I won’t spend too much time on that here, as I also want to get to a few things about the film and my blog post is already going to be very long!

Opinions can legitimately differ on how we are to take Catherine as a character, but I take her quite positively. Maybe that’s based on what I already think as a person in the 21st century: I don’t mind that she is quite naive, I focus instead on the fact that she is more concerned with morality and practicality than with social customs. She is really quite naive about the ways of the social world at the time, as evidenced by the things she doesn’t “get”:

  • She doesn’t understand what Isabella is doing with Cpt. Tilney at first (107)
  • She doesn’t get the General’s suggestion of marriage on p. 128
  • She doesn’t get that when the General says some things he really doesn’t mean them (151, 155-156)
  • and more…

It’s possible to read Catherine as a silly, naive girl who is too gullible to be reading gothic novels b/c she will just be too easily influenced. And I don’t think such a reading must necessarily be wrong, it’s just that I also see a different possibility too. I grasp onto the places where she expresses a concern for morality or practicality:

  • She won’t say a lie in order to go with Isabella, John and James on a ride, even though they all press her to do so and doing so would make her relationships with Isabella and James easier (70-73)
  • She wonders how, if people say one thing and mean another, they can be understood. How can people have good relationships while doing this? (156)
    • Her family were instead “plan matter-of-fact people” who “were not in the habit … of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next” (46).
  • She expresses to Henry that she doesn’t like his brother, Cpt. Tilney, for what he has done with Isabella–even though someone else might be concerned that it could jeopardize her relationship with Henry if she expressed dislike for one of his family (161).
    • To which Henry replies, I think with some irony, that her mind is “warped by an innate principle of general integrity, and therefore not accessibly to the cool reasonings of family partiality, or a desire of revenge”–or else she would not be at all concerned for Isabella’s feelings but only for her brother’s (161).

I rather like Catherine, then, and think of her character as someone who is far enough outside the social customs and manners of the society in which she finds herself for most of the novel to be able to look at them critically and react to them honestly. It really is incomprehensible how people can be understood if they say one thing or mean another; it really is incomprehensible what Isabella could have been doing with Cpt. Tilney when she is engaged to James, etc.

I also wanted to talk today about whether and how Catherine changes over the course of the novel, but I’ll leave that to you to think about, in the interest of saving some time and space to talk about the film.


 Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead Badge, Flickr photo shared by Mark Whitaker, licensed CC BY 2.0

Shaun of the Dead Badge, Flickr photo shared by Mark Whitaker, licensed CC BY 2.0

Zombies and everyday life

One thing this film does very well is to make the zombie attack look, at least at first, just like a normal day. The clip shown in lecture is a good example, where Shaun walks to the store to get a drink and a Cornetto for Ed, walking past several zombies in the process and not noticing anything at all because he is groggy from just waking up. And, as someone pointed out in lecture, that is a repeat of an earlier scene where he walks to the same store and meets the same people (more or less) before they are zombies. Things have changed a bit, but not in enough of a way to mark a great distinction between everyday life and people being zombies.

But there are lots of good examples of this elsewhere in the film:

  • The very first thing we see in the film is Shaun’s face like a zombie in the pub; Ed is playing video games; they’re talking about how they just do the same things over and over and need to get out and do something else.
  • The next day is full of zombie references:
    • When he wakes up and walks out of his room he has that zombie walk and the zombie sound when yawning.
    • On public transit, everyone looks like a zombie.
    • There are news reports in the newspaper at the store, and on the televisions at his work, about something strange starting to happen; but he keeps getting pulled away from those into everyday life…it’s no different than a usual day with strange things happening in the world.
    • Also on the tv’s at work there are similar (or exactly the same?) shows as we get at the end as well: the game show with people slipping on slides, the talk show with Trisha…. At the end these have zombies, but really that’s not terribly different from these shows at the beginning without zombies.
    • Shaun and Ed can’t tell a zombie from a drunk when they leave the pub and incorporate the zombie’s groans into their song.
    • etc., etc., etc.!

So really, we’re already zombies; the zombie apocalypse in the film is just a more obvious expression of what’s already going on.


Zombies and video games, media, pop culture

The film also does a great job of linking media, music, video games and zombies.

Throughout the film Ed is playing video games: in the very first scene, at the pub, then at home, then he turns on the video game machine at the Winchester when they’re trying to be quiet so the zombies don’t find them, and then of course in the very last scene. He was always a zombie, really; things haven’t changed that much with him.

There was a scene early on in the movie, I can’t remember exactly when, when Ed is playing a video game where you shoot people and Shaun is helping him by pointing out someone Ed had missed, at the “top left” or something like that. And that happens again in reverse when they’re shooting zombies at the pub later: Shaun is shooting and Ed points out one that Shaun had missed, again “top left” (I think it was top left, but whatever…you get the idea). There is an association here between the zombies and video games as well.

Also when they’re in the Winchester trying to hide from the zombies, what brings them to the zombies’ notice? The video game and the jukebox with music, of course (Queen’s “Don’t stop me now”…not sure if there is some kind of symbolism to that song but I’m not seeing it at the moment; it does, of course, allow for a funny line when Shaun tells David to turn off the jukebox by saying “Kill the Queen”).

One thing that particularly struck me in this regard is when the newscaster said, and repeated, that the way to stop the zombies was to “Remove the head or destroy the brain.” Pretty clearly that is what has already happened to many people, possibly in part as a result of video games, pop culture, various media: we’ve lost the ability to think for ourselves, to think critically, and just go along with the crowd instead. And the fact that Shaun and friends could go through the zombie horde without them noticing by just looking and sounding like a zombie is significant: the zombies just want you to become like them. As long as they think you already are, they’ll leave you alone. The point of zombieism is conformity.



Now, given all of what we’ve talked about on Wednesday and what I’ve said above and what you yourself think, what connections can you draw between the film and the novel?

I think it would also be interesting to consider whether both Catherine and Shaun change by the end of the book and the film. I can see how Catherine might, but does Shaun? Have things really changed in the film by the end? It seems the zombies are still around (just now more directly on the tv shows rather than indirectly), and Shaun and Ed are still playing video games.

Please put your thoughts on these, or anything else I’ve said (and please feel free to disagree…I like it when I get a chance to think critically about what I already think!), in the comments.


Students’ analyses of Wordsworth & Coleridge poems

William Wordsworth, by Henry Eldridge, c. 1802. On Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In Arts One this week we talked about Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth and Coleridge. Today in class, after talking about “The Rime of the Ancynt Marinere” and Romanticism in general, I asked the students to meet in groups of 3-4 and analyze one of the other poems in the collection. These are their notes!

“Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned” (Wordsworth)

  • These sequential poems from Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads both deal with speakers who criticize the solely academic pursuit of knowledge.
  • It is clear that the advocation here is for a return to understanding humans, nature, and human nature, through experiencing them for oneself.
  • Books can only relay so much; we need to appreciate emotional connections that we make to other things, especially those which are natural.
  • These poems relate to the overall theme of Romanticism seamlessly: they favour the importance of self-reflection and contemplation as a part of nature, and relates the importance of the common individual in a society where only scholastic and powerful individuals are valued.
  • Nature needs to be revered, and we need to draw fulfillment, inspiration, and knowledge through our own senses.
  • Books are, by their very nature, static and unchanging. They can not possibly suffice for a true understanding of our surroundings. These poems criticize those whose only source of information is unchanging — set in ‘stone’.

“The Nightingale” (Coleridge)

Conversational poem written in blank verse

– If Coleridge, separates from his other poems

  • More similar to Wordsworth

– Theme of stillness and idleness

  • Torpor in the Savage Torpor

– References the poet, why?

– About the sense

  • Experiencing vs. just writing about it
  • Should be effected by emotion

– Nightingale represents sadness/melancholy

  • People who write about sadness have yet to actually learn about sadness

– Nature isn’t sad, man is, and we impose this sadness onto it

– By default nature is lovely, but we choose the ugly

  • Moving the souls of people with the wrong intentions (fame)

– Sad man recognizes his sadness in the nightingale’s song (as opposed to himself)

– Imagery of nature is very idealized/romanticized

– Poem keeps going, very immediate (use of dashes as opposed to periods)

– Friends refer to group of nightingales



“Old Man Traveling

Animal tranquility and decay” (Wordsworth)

 One group’s notes on this poem:

“A man who does not move with pain” – yet he does. He is decaying according to the subtitle. Perhaps it is his mental state that has decayed? And with that comes his ability to process anguish.

Age could be the ‘decay’ that is mentioned.

Old man is appearing at peace, yet he is actually mournful. Contrast with Lines Written Early Spring, where the rest of nature also appears at peace, but humanity is not.

Old man is exhibiting peace even though this terrible thing has happened. Many people would want to express their anger; his stoic nature singles him out.

Perhaps age is a factor? Just like in Tintern Abbey, with age comes a better understanding and wisdom, perhaps a greater ability to deal with pain?

Other theory for the subtitle – the family is decaying, yet the old man is tranquil despite this.

Second group’s notes on this poem

backward nature; son is dying before the father

father is peaceful? or does he indeed move with pain?

so many contradictions

so patient that he does not need patience

“animal tranquility”
animals do not mourn the same ways humans do
tranquil animal’s attitude towards decay
however, moving with thought rather than pain is not very animalistic

the birds “regard [the father] not” in the same way the father does not overtly express his grief

another backward nature: humans acting like animals (not being sad at death)

commentary on war: son has died in a “sea fight”
perhaps this means that the backward nature of the son dying before the father is a result of war?


“Tinturn Abbey” (Wordsworth)

– the most romantic of all the poems because of the description of the area surrounding Tintern Abbey- repetition of the fact that the area is very secluded

– the description of the scene reflects on the vagrant dwellers and the hermits because they live in such as beautiful place- associate the beauty of the scene with the people living there although this is most likely not to be true.

– when the author discusses the city life  he says “often times the still, sad music of humanity” (111) he talks about the people living in the city and when looking at the vagrant dwellers and hermits, you would never associate the sad music of humanity with them

– nature is a prevalent theme- the narrator wishes to return to Tintern abbey, even in his mind

– The beautiful description of Tintern Abbey (and the surrounding area) preceding the mention of the “pastoral farms” (109) takes away from the fact that those dwelled on farms in this era would often be very poor. The beauty of nature at the Abbey takes over any potential misfortune in the lives of those who live there.

– Nature becomes necessary for the narrator to experience serenity and peace. The city does not provide the same haven.

Ian Hacking, Rewriting the Soul

In Arts One this term we are reading Ian Hacking’s book, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory (Princeton University Press, 1995). Here is a link to the Prezi used by our lecturer for this book, Jill Fellows.

In our seminar class on Wed. Jan. 21 I asked students to write down one or more of the “main points” they got from the text. I did this because there are many things that Hacking is talking about in this book, and I wanted to see if we could pull out a few that we thought were especially important.

In this post I am going to try to put these ideas from students together in some kind of coherent fashion (I hope), adding in my own thoughts on what I think are some of the main arguments in the book. I’ve grouped them into categories; others may group them differently, but this makes sense to me at the moment.

Note: this is a very long post! The first part is what we all said we thought were the main points in the text. If you want to jump down towards the bottom, I try to put this all together into a bigger picture, and then distill it down into an even bigger picture at the very end (literally, with pictures!).

What we said are the main points in the text

Making up people/the “looping effect”

The “looping effect” as explained by Hacking:

“People classified in a certain way tend to conform to or grow into the ways that they are described; but they also evolve in their own ways, so that the classifications and descriptions have to be constantly revised” (21).

“Being seen to be a certain kind of person, or to do a certain kind of act, may affect someone. A new or modified mode of classification may systematically affect the people who are so classified, or the people themselves may rebel against the knowers, the classifiers, the science that classifies them. Such interactions may lead to changes in the people who are classified, and hence in what is known about them” (239)

I think he connects this pretty closely with the idea of “making up people” (6).

The following things said by students fit with these ideas, I believe:

  • Several students mentioned something about language:
    • The stigma associated with certain words and ideas can affect the way that mental health (and other) issues are handled by those affected
    • The importance of language in both memory and history–we need to have a dialogue before these two things can exist, and the particular words used can affect memory and history (e.g., the discussion of the development of “child abuse”)
    • Language fundamentally shapes and alters thought and identity–people labelled/identified will (even if unconsciously) conform to some degree to the stereotypes/shades of connotation of that label
  • How the looping effect works with multiple personality and other medical/psychological concerns:
    • Multiple personality and other “disorders” (note: a word Hacking says he doesn’t want to use (17)) are not completely detached from culture and society, but change with these. The way we classify and talk about a disease can change the actual disease itself.
    • Throughout history, different clinical paradigms were created when clinicians were trying to interpret and label some kind of illness. Our understanding is therefore a continuum and can change over time.
  • We define ourselves based on what others think of us–for instance, Félida thought of herself as “double consciousness” because that is what her doctor thought she was.
    • similar: People’s impressionability is a key in our personalities and physical development as we see ourselves as we are defined (or we reject the descriptions). This also works with the increase of the average number of alters.
  • The way we are perceived and treated by others has such a profound effect that it can even cause physiological changes in brain chemistry and result in medical conditions
  • We are not responsible for who we become, OR possibly that we are?
  • People create, and follow, their own biographies (218). The soul or “biography” is constantly changing depending on others’ views and opinions.
  • Fact and fiction are interrelated (see Hacking 232-233, e.g.); (Christina’s elaboration of what this might mean:) our identities are a mixture of facts and the stories we tell about these (e.g., the reference to the idea of stars vs constellations in lecture–there are stars, but how we put those together into constellations is “fictional”)

Memory, self-identity, making up ourselves

  • Self-identity and personality are defined and created by our memories
    • similar: People are defined and shaped by their memories, no matter how true those memories are
    • similar: Memories play a key role in the development of a person (with either real memories or fabricated ones)
    • (Christina: I think this is similar) Recalling past memories creates a new present reality; the past constantly affects the present as it is relived
  • If our memory is what shapes our soul–who we are–then by changing our interpretation of the past, we also change who we are
    • His arguments about the “indeterminacy of the past” and “action under a description” (chpt. 17) are relevant here: using new descriptions for actions from the past can lead to us becoming new persons, in a way (68), with new pasts and therefore new identities
  • The way we remember things can be altered and memories can be created or repressed
  • External forces are at play when creating the self–politically influenced memory
    • similar: the recreation of memory is often influenced from outside with political views and agendas
  • He raises concerns about the manipulation of memory in regards to multiple personality and remembering child abuse
  • Memory and recollection in general are not by any means objective; rather, the passage of time in human history, including the turning of memory into a science, has seen attitudes towards and beliefs about memories change

History, historical contingency

  • Challenging our perception of facts that we see as absolute; part of his history of multiplicity is made to show how our “general knowledge” came into being and to show that it isn’t as absolute as we may believe it to be
  • From lecture: Hacking illustrates that there are a lot of facts that we take to be obviously true but are only contingently true–they have not always been true, and they need not always be so in the future

Multiple personality

  •  Multiple personality is linked with how we conceive ourselves and with memory
  • The association that many psychiatrists have raised of multiple personality and childhood abuse is not proven, so it is only a conjecture
  • Multiple personality is a real condition now and cannot be written off (as it has in the past) though it is socially constructed

Secularizing/scientizing the soul

None of the students said this in what they wrote down, but he makes several points about this idea:

“My chief topic, toward the end of the book, will become the way in which a new science, a purported knowledge of memory, quite self-consciously was create in order to secularize the soul. Science had hitherto been excluded from study of the soul itself. The new sciences of memory came into being in order to conquer that resilient core of Western thought and practice” (5).

“I am preoccupied by attempts to scientize the soul through the study of memory” (6).

The sciences of memory “all emerged as surrogate sciences of the soul, empirical sciences, positive sciences that would provide new kinds of knowledge in terms of which to cure, help, and control the one aspect of human beings that had hitherto been outside science” (209).

His discussion of the history of the sciences of memory that developed in the 19th century fits here: he is describing how we have come to think of memory as the key to whatever it is that we might call “the soul” (which he defines on pp. 6 and 215). He talks about these sciences of memory mostly in Chpt. 14, but I think what he talks about in Chpts. 10-13 could also be part of the discussion of the sciences of memory.

Other points

  • Ignorance, or overlooking some things, in our search for knowledge about mental health issues can lead to detrimental results; categorizing people under certain mental disorders can be dangerous
  • We can “create” other persons within ourselves, whether it’s intentional or unintentional
  • The soul/identity are transient–who we are shifts and changes over time


Putting this all together

How do these various arguments/emphases fit together? As one student put it when I also asked them for questions they have about the text: “What is this book really about? Multiple personality, the soul, memory?”

Here’s my take on how this might all fit together, but there are, I expect, other legitimate ways to connect it. Under each heading, below, I’ve tried to put in bold and a new colour some of the other categories from above, to show how they could fit with the heading.

1. Memory, the sciences of memory, scientizing the soul, historical contingency

  • He starts the book by asking why memory has become so important in our lives. He says, “An astonishing variety of concerns are pulled in under that one heading: memory,” and asks, “why has it been essential to organize so many of our present projects in terms of memory?” (3).
  • His history of the sciences of memory, including how memory was important in discussions of hysteria, double-consciousness and multiplicity, are, I think, a way to show that the way we think about memory is historically contingent–it has a particular history, which he is trying to trace, and it’s not necessary that we think this way, then or now or in the future.
    • Memory has become something to study scientifically, whereas that wasn’t the case before the 19th century
    • Things we used to talk about in terms of the soul, in terms of spiritual difficulties, are now talked about in terms of science and in particular sciences focused on memory (5, 197)
    • Further, he argues on p. 260 that “Only with the advent of memoro-politics did memory become a surrogate for the soul,” and “Since memoro-politics has largely succeeded, we have come to think of ourselves, our character, and our souls as very much formed by our past.”
      • This suggests that part of his point is to argue that our current thoughts about our selves, our identity, being so strongly connected to memory and the past are also historically contingent; we don’t have to think of ourselves this way, necessarily.
  • The question above, of why we think of so many things in terms of memory, seems to be answered by him saying that memory, as a scientific way of thinking about the “soul,” has become, due to the particular history of the sciences of memory, a topic that encompasses many different things.
  • How is multiple personality connected to these points?
  • Hacking: “I hold that whatever made possible the most up-to-the-moment events in the little saga of multiple personality is strongly connected to fundamental and long-term aspects of the great field of knowledge about memory that emerged in the last half of the nineteenth century” (4).
  • In other words, the way we talk about, understand, treat MP is importantly linked to the history of the sciences of memory.
    • Hacking argues, for example, that in views of “double consciousness” in the English-speaking world, “there was virtually no interest in memory within the symptom language” (150), because “memory had not yet become an object of scientific knowledge” (155).
    • It is with Azam’s discussion of Félida that we begin to see a link between double-consciousness and memory–specifically, with amnesia (170). He first treated her in 1858, but the sciences of memory weren’t yet in place; it was only in 1875-1876 that she fit into “the emerging sciences of memory” (160).
    • Then the link between memory, amnesia and multiplicity was strengthened with the case of Louis Vivet (179, 181).
    • Today, amnesia is critical to the diagnosis of multiplicity (or rather, dissociative identity disorder) (from lecture)
  • This means that “multiple personality” is a historically and socially created category, but is not therefore “not real” (chapter 1).

2. Making up people/looping effect

  • He uses his history of multiplicity to demonstrate the “looping effect”
    • e.g., the patients who are described as multiples may begin to act according to the paradigm of what a “multiple” is like (or, don’t forget, they may not quite fit it and then a new description has to be created)
  • The connection between memory and identity, how we can create ourselves differently by seeing the past differently, can be an example of the looping effect–see, e.g.,  second paragraph on p. 239.
    • so the “looping effect” can be both that
      • descriptions from our social/cultural/scientific context can affect how we see ourselves (and our thoughts and behaviours also affect those descriptions)
      • those descriptions affect how we see our past, our memories, and this also affects how we see ourselves

Here’s a picture of what I mean by these two aspects of the looping effect. (Sorry, I only have time to draw this up by hand right now!)


So what is this book about, then?

At this point, after working through all this, I think it’s about memory and identity, how the sciences of memory have developed such that we now see memory as an important part of our identity (that’s the point of the history of those sciences in the middle of the book). This is true for those diagnosed with multiple personality or dissociative identity disorder, but also true for all of us, as we change the past using new descriptions for actions from the past (chpt. 17). Multiple personality is used as a kind of microcosm for the larger phenomenon that we all experience, of how we think of memory as important to who we are, and how the looping effect also affects how we think of ourselves (and note from above, the looping effect also applies to current descriptions of us affecting how we see our past, and thus how we think of our identity.

Here’s another picture:


I don’t know if I’ve clarified anything for others, or just made things more complicated. I’ve done what I can in the time I have!



Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols lecture

For Arts One this term, I gave a lecture on Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols. This is the first time I have read this text in many years, and I found it quite challenging. I only got through part of what I wanted to say in the lecture, so promised the students I’d say the rest of it, and give them the slides from it, on my blog.

You will be able to see a recording of this lecture in about a week’s time, on the Arts One Open site, under “lectures and podcasts” (if I remember, I’ll link to it here when it’s ready…but I might forget).

Here’s a PDF of all the slides, in case that’s useful to students or anyone else: Nietzsche Twilight Slides 2015 (PDF)

And here are the slides from Slideshare (you can download them from there if you want; just click on the link below the embedded slides)


Where I got to in the lecture was a discussion of how, for Nietzsche, we deny life through aiming for some other, “true” world as opposed to an “apparent” one, and we were talking about what Plato says in this regard in Republic and also in Phaedo. So we were at the “Nietzsche and Plato” slides.
Up next were these:
Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 3.34.46 PM
Nietzsche's perspectivism, 2
My point here is that rather than thinking we should try to get rid of our various perspectives on reality and reach some kind of objective truth about it, which Plato seems to want to do when talking about the forms, Nietzsche argues that such an endeavour is impossible. For Plato, our various ways of thinking about justice, goodness, beauty, courage, etc., are just opinions; they differ from person to person, and even over time within the same person. They are not the essence, the “being” of justice, its form. We need to get beyond those perspectives to what the objective truth really is. But for Nietzsche, this is impossible and even absurd: the quote on the first slide above goes on: “what is demanded here is an absurdity and a non-concept of an eye.”
How is trying to get rid of our perspectives and aiming for some unchanging, objective truth a kind of hostility to life? It’s because it asks us to do what we cannot, in our actual lives, do; it asks us to aim for a world that is better, but that could only be reached if we are not the sorts of beings we actually are.


Sickness and how it happened
When we finished, I was working through what I think Nietzsche takes our “sickness” to be: caused by hostility to the instincts of life, leading to self-hatred for the passions and instincts we have, such as the will to power, that are considered through religion and morality be “bad.” We end up bearing “ill will” towards ourselves, “full of hate against the impulses to live…”, and thus “sick, wretched” (Those Who Improve Humanity, Sect. 2, p. 39).
But Nietzsche also asks why we ended up with moralities and religions that make us sick. Why do we try to eliminate instincts that are after all part of and crucial to life?
Because we have no choice–this is the only morality that makes sense for those who are too weak to control our instincts and passions; we have to denigrate them, condemn them, try to get rid of them.
Weakness & DecadenceWeakness & Decadence, 2
On the first slide: We have to try to eliminate our ‘negative’ instincts and passions because we are not able to control them. We have altruism as a moral value in part because we don’t know how to act for our own advantage, or we’re not able to. The second point on the second slide suggests that we need to be kind and considerate to each other because we recognize how weak and tender we all are, and this makes the most sense for us.
On p. 73 (Raids, sect. 37), N has another useful quote about altruistic, considerate moral values:

“The amputation of our hostile, untrustworthy instincts—and that is what our ‘progress’ comes down to—is just one of the consequences of the general amputation of vitality: it costs a hundred times more trouble and care to preserve such a dependent and late existence. So people help each other out, so each is the patient to some degree, and each is the nurse. That is then called ‘virtue’—among people who still knew a different sort of life, fuller, more extravagant, more overflowing, it would have been called something else, ‘cowardice’ maybe, ‘pitifulness,’ ‘old ladies’ morality’ ….”

I put Thrasymachus at the bottom of the second slide because the view that we have a morality of consideration, kindness, mutual help, altruism due to weakness and need of help reminds me of what Thrasymachus says in Plato’s Republic about how those who are strong enough to do what seems “unjust” according to traditional morality won’t think that such injustice is a problem. It’s only those who can’t do that and get away with it who will praise the traditional view of justice.

This idea becomes quite clear in Glaucon’s restatement of Thrasymachus’ view near the beginning of Book II of Republic. Glaucon says that those who are unable to commit injustice with impunity or avoid suffering injustice from others agree amongst themselves not to commit injustice against each other. People value justice, Glaucon says (but he’s just restating the Thrasymachean view), “not as a good but because they are to weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however,… wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him that would be madness” (359a).

The Problem of Socrates

After this discussion of anti-natural morality and how we have come to it because we are weak, the section on “The Problem of Socrates” makes more sense, I think.

My enduring question in this section is: what is the “problem” about Socrates, actually?

What is the problem of Socrates?Is the problem that he himself is a problem, that there is something wrong with him? That’s surely part of it–Nietzsche is clear that Socrates belongs to those who judge life to be worthless (Problem, Sect. 1, p. 12). But one might still ask: in what way could we say Socrates judged life worthless?

  • If we take the Socrates here to be referring to the Socrates in Plato’s Republic, then he could be said to judge life worthless in the same way as I’ve said above that Plato does.
  • If we take him to be the philosopher who engaged in what is now called the “Socratic method,” who went around showing people in Athens that they do not know what they think they know, by asking continual questions until the person themselves is forced to admit what is wrong with their view…then…is this hostile to life?
    • Nietzsche suggests that Socrates’ hostility to life is in his hyper-rationalism, the demand that one give reasons for every one of one’s beliefs, values, actions, which this version of Socrates certainly could be said to have done.
    • Perhaps: always having to justify oneself with reasons, with arguments, rather than acting out of instincts or passions…somehow hostile to life?
  • The Socrates of Republic, certainly, emphasizes reason above all else, the control of the passions through reason as their natural ruler.

But there’s another aspect to the “problem of Socrates” that Nietzsche points to in this section: N asks how it was that he got himself listened to, how it was that people took him seriously (Problem, Sect. 5, p. 14). What did it take for the Socratic view of life, his hyper-rationalism, to become something that made sense? Of course, it didn’t make sense to all right away; Athens did put him to death after all. But his legacy lived on through Plato and many other Greek philosophers.

Nietzsche’s answer: Socrates provided a remedy that was a last resort for the Greeks, for those who were already not strong enough to control their passions and instincts:Socrates as doctorThose who cannot control their drives in any other way turn to the cure of Socrates (and Plato): attempting to rule them with reason, to conquer them, even (as noted above in the quotes from Phaedo), to eliminate them and the body as much as possible.

Why was this the case at the time? Nietzsche doesn’t explain clearly in Twilight. He just says that “the instincts were turning against each other” (Problem, Sect. 9, p. 16).

To me, this rings a bell (again!) with what he says in Genealogy of Morality (Treatise II, Sect. 16), that when we start to live in societies, we have to start to moderate our “darker” drives, our will to power, and can’t vent it on other members of our societies. Nietzsche refers to this idea in Twilight in What I Owe to the Ancients, Sect. 3: the ancient Greeks, he says there, raised their institutions as “security measures” against their “strongest instinct, the will to power,” “in order to make themselves safe in the face of each other’s inner explosives.” They could and did still vent it against outsiders: “The immense internal tension then discharged itself in frightening and ruthless external hostility: the city-states ripped each other to shreds so that the citizens might, each of them attain peace with themselves” (What I Owe, Sect. 3, p. 88).

So long as they have an expression for their will to power outwards, then it is less likely to be discharged inwards, against themselves, against their own instincts for power. But perhaps, as the older Greek pleasure in conquering, attacking, violence (Nietzsche suggests the world of Homer expressed this well) became reduced, then the instincts for power started turning inwards, and the instincts of the ancient Greeks then, as Nietzsche says, began to turn against each other. This is a speculation, though; I’m not sure it’s what he means.

Socrates, then, provided a way to deal with the instincts attacking each other, for those who had no other means of solving this problem: let’s make a tyrant out of reason to help control these instincts and keep them from tearing us apart.

“The fanaticism with which all Greek speculation throws itself at rationality betrays a situation of emergency: they were in danger, they had to make this choice: either to be destroyed or–to be absurdly rational …” (Problem, Sect. 10, p. 16)

But Socrates as a would-be healer is also a poisoner, as it were:

Socrates as PoisonerAnd this is because Socrates’ cure, like the efforts to condemn or eliminate the instincts and passions, also works to denigrate life. Whereas Socrates (and Plato) thought that Reason = Virtue = Happiness (think about how that’s the case for Plato), Nietzsche argues that this was “not at all a way back to ‘virtue,’ to ‘health,’ to happiness …” (Problem, Sect. 11, p. 17).

But in one of Nietzsche’s characteristic twists (I have found that often, even when Nietzsche seems to be “against” something, he still shows that it has some value), he also suggests that Socrates was nevertheless a saviour in some, albeit perhaps small, sense.

Socrates as saviourI’m getting this, as you can tell, mostly from the Genealogy of Morality. There, he says that ideals such as religion, morality, the belief in some absolute “truth” that would take us away from this work and this life, nevertheless have value in that they are a means for us to keep living. Such ideals, Nietzsche says in GM, spring from “the protecting and healing instincts of a degenerating life that seeks with every means to hold its ground and is fighting for existence” (Treatise III, Sect. 13). What seems to be a negation of life in cures such as that by Socrates, is actually one of “the very great conserving and yes-creating forces of life” (Ibid).

They key here is that such “cures” at least create a meaning for us, for the suffering involved in life: “Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering, does not negate suffering in itself; he wants it, he even seeks it out, provided one shows him a meaning for it, a to-this-end of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering itself, was the curse that thus far lay stretched out over humanity …” (GM Treatise III, Sect. 28). And morality, religion, Socratic-Platonic hyper-rationality, and perhaps even Rousseau provide a meaning, a reason for it that makes sense of it.

This is how I make sense of the Epigram from Twilight noted at the bottom of the above slide. What we most need is a “why,” and then we can live with nearly any “how” in life. We don’t need to aim for happiness; suffering will be acceptable with the “why.” (N’s remark about only the English aiming for suffering is perhaps pointing to the English utilitarian philosophers, such as Bentham and Mill, who argue that everything we do is because we are aiming towards what we think will bring us happiness.)

Nietzsche and Socrates

At the end of the lecture I come back to the beginning, to the mirror image at the beginning, where I said that we might consider Nietzsche to be seeing something of Rousseau and Socrates in himself (or at least, we might see them in him).

How might we think of Nietzsche as “Socratic” in some sense? Here I’m thinking of the Socrates of the “Socratic method,” the “gadfly” I mentioned earlier in the lecture, the one who continually shows people that they do not know what they think they know.

On this slide are some aspects of Socrates that I think one might see in Nietzsche. Do you agree?

Nietzsche & Socrates

Might we think of Nietzsche, too, as some kind of doctor as Socrates was some kind of doctor, as aiming to help cure us from a sickness? The two authors I cited on a slide towards the beginning of the lecture, about a “therapeutic” reading of Nietzsche, think so.

Nietzsche as saviour

The Hammer Speaks

I address this issue in the last section of the lecture, called “The Hammer Speaks,” referring of course to the very last section of the text (which I am both fascinated and yet still puzzled by).

Does Nietzsche offer any sort of “alternative” to the sickness we are suffering from, any way to act differently? Perhaps in his continual references to saying “yes,” to affirming life:

Saying yesSee the sections and pages listed above for examples of when he talks about such yes-saying.

What, though, might this sort of life look like? For that, I turn to the last line of the text before the section on “The Hammer Speaks,” where Nietzsche calls himself “the teacher of the eternal recurrence” (What I Owe, Sect. 5, p. 91). The “eternal recurrence” is a contested concept in Nietzsche scholarship, as there are several things it could mean. One thing it could mean is encompassed in this quote from the Gay Science by Nietzsche:

Repetition (Gay Science 341)Repetition (Gay Science 341)One interpretation of the “eternal recurrence” is as a thought experiment to explain what it might mean to actually say “yes” to life in a deep way, and whether you could do this. Could you will that the exact same things happen to you, over and over, forever? Remember, the demon comes to you in your “loneliest loneliness,” not when you’re feeling good about your life.

Getting back to our theme (which I think is expressed in the lecture in large part through Nietzsche showing us our past and present, revealing to us our “idols” but in a way that makes them sound different than we usually “hear” them, this is repetition at its extreme.

Nietzsche also connects this kind of deep affirmation of even the most terrible things in life, and the eternal recurrence, to Dionysus. This is, I think, a reference to his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, in which he speaks of Dionysus as a representation, in Greek tragedy, of forces of life and nature that are destructive, chaotic, amoral, absurd and horrible (opposing this to Apollo as a representation of the ways in which Greek art, and also tragedy, aim for order, clarity, proportion, harmony, and individuation–whereas the Dionysian element destroys individuation, individual identity, unifies us with the whole). The Dionysian rites, Nietzsche states in Twilight, also emphasize sexuality, reproduction, t

he pain required for new creations and new births. In that sense, perhaps, being Dionysian may refer to being able to face the destructive, chaotic, horrible aspects of life, to celebrate sexuality rather than denigrate it.

The last three slides attempt to give a reading of the last section of the text, where the “hammer” speaks. The idea here is to consider how it is that one might become Dionysian, someone who says “yes.”

I’ll leave these last slides here without comment, as I hope they’re fairly self-explanatory. Feel free to ask me any questions about them (or anything else), below!

Become hard (1)Become hard (2)

Become hard (3)

Lecture on Hobbes’ Leviathan

On Monday, Nov. 10, 2014, I gave a lecture on Hobbes’ Leviathan for Arts One at UBC. There is a video recording, but we don’t post those until after students have submitted their essays (so no one is tempted to skip lecture!). I’ll link to that when it’s ready.

I wanted to share my presentation slides here because, as usual, I didn’t get to everything I wanted to say (it’s so hard to gauge exactly how much you can fit into a 2-hour lecture (or rather, 2 50-minute lectures!). I wanted to let students (and anyone else who is interested) get a chance to see the last few slides.

Or rather, I used Prezi for the first time with this lecture. I like it because it allows you to group your slides together in ways that can show how the argument is structured. Only mine is a bit messy–what does that say about my argument in the lecture, eh?

Here’s the link to the Prezi itself (wish they had an embed function!)

I only got to the last three slides on the bottom (the powers of the sovereign, the liberty of subjects, and what subjects can’t do). If you saw the lecture, skip past those to see what else I was trying to say, and why I was gesturing towards thinking that maybe the Hobbesian state wouldn’t be monstrous, and maybe our state shares some similarities with a Hobbesian one.

Or, if you don’t want to go through the whole Prezi just to get to the last few slides, here they are (they’ll make sense, hopefully, by themselves if you saw the lecture).

The last three are zoomed into the frontispiece as if we were going into the body of the commonwealth; thus the grey background!

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Forbidden Island (The Tempest and Forbidden Planet)

Forbidden Planet Movie Poster, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Forbidden Planet Movie Poster, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain).



For Arts One last week we read Shakespeare’s The Tempest and also watched Forbidden Planet, which is clearly based in part on Shakespeare’s play. I had never seen that 1956 film before, so the mystery and the big reveal at the end were a surprise for me. Then I started wondering just whether or not it could make sense to give a psychological reading to Shakespeare’s original. Here is what I managed to come up with before class last Friday, but we didn’t have time to talk about it in class. Mostly what I have are some suggestive thoughts and then questions!

The ocean and the storm, and Prospero’s art as connected to mental confusion and madness

This one is pretty easy to see from Prospero and Ariel’s conversation right after the storm. Prospero asks Ariel: “Who was so firm, so constant, that his coil/ Would not infect his reason”? Ariel: “Not a soul/ But felt a fever of the mad, and played/ Some tricks of desperation. All but mariners/ Plunged in the foaming brine and quit the vessel” (1.2.206-211). And of course, after they jump into the sea is when they end up on the island, confused by Prospero’s magic and illusions.

Then Ariel, when he appears as a harpy to Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, says, “I have made you mad; / And even with such-like valour men hang and drown / Their proper selves” (3.3.57-59), thereby connecting drowning to madness.

Prospero’s art clearly makes people confused, provides illusions, clouds their reason. After the harpy scene with Ariel, Prospero says, “And these, mine enemies, are all knit up/ In their distractions. They are now in my power; / And in these fits I leave them …” (3.3.89-91). And when he breaks the charm over them: “their rising senses/ Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle/ Their clearer reason” (5.1.66-68).

Gonzalo suggests that the madness that holds Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio is caused by their guilt, suggesting that we might be able to read Prospero’s art, at least to some extent, as a kind of psychological phenomenon happening within the minds of the characters: “All three of them are desperate: their great guilt,/ Like poison given to work a great time after,/ Now ‘gins to bite the spirits.” (3.3.104-106). If we were to go with this, though, what kind of interpretation could we give to the storm, if it were somehow in the minds of the king, his son, and the nobles on the boat? Would we have to say it’s in the minds of the mariners as well?

And what about Caliban’s experience of Prospero’s magic? He mostly seems to get pains from it. If we were to do a psychological reading of the play, could these be representative of some kind of pain in his own mind? I’m not sure it makes sense to think that Caliban might have guilt like the king and nobles, but he is clearly mentally pained by Prospero as well as physically.

Forbidden Planet

The psychological interpretation of the events of the play in the film is that the unconscious mind of Dr. Morbius (the Prospero character) has been able, through advanced technology from an alien civilization, to instantiate a monster in physical reality. He is not aware that he is doing it (of course! it’s unconscious), and much of the film is dedicated to trying to figure out what this monster is and how to stop it.

Dr. Morbius, like Prospero, has a great desire for knowledge. Dr. Morbius’ knowledge, along with the technology he gets from the Krell, is able to create physical manifestations of what one has in one’s mind; can Prospero do the same? In a way, yes, because he can make what he thinks of become a reality through his magic and with the help of Ariel, but I’m not sure it’s best described as physical manifestations, since it seems mostly visual and auditory illusions.

Too much knowledge, or too heavy a focus on gaining knowledge, is portrayed as dangerous in both works. It leads Dr. Morbius to unknowingly kill the other members of the crew of the Bellerophon (Bellerophon, by the way, is a mythological hero of ancient Greece who, among other things was famous for killing the Chimera–a beast with a lion’s head, a goal’s body, and a serpent’s tail. The monster in the film has a lion’s head, but I can’t recall the rest of what it looks like!), and the Krell machine kills the doctor from the ship. In the play, of course, it leads Prospero to neglect his rule. The captain of the ship in the film doesn’t rank very high on the knowledge scale, according to the Krell machine, but he is still a very effective leader as portrayed in the film. The same might be said for political rule: it’s more important to have practical and leadership skills than more abstract knowledge.

The other problem with what Dr. Morbius is doing is what killed the Krell as well: trying to become so intelligent, so moral, so peaceful that one forgets the dark side of the human psyche, which will nevertheless not disappear no matter how much one tries. What does Dr. Morbius’ unconscious mind want? To stay on the planet when the rest of his ship wants to leave (his monster destroys them when they argue for leaving and try to leave), presumably out of a thirst for knowledge; also, he wants Miranda to not be with another man (his monster starts killing people after Miranda kisses the first man from the ship, and it gets worse after she falls in love with the Captain).

Forbidden island?

Can we read Shakespeare’s play through the lens of thinking that Prospero’s unconscious might play a role in what his happening, somehow?

We could see Caliban as the “monster of the Id,” the representation of desires that, in someone whose reason and moral sense are in charge, are repressed (e.g., his attempted rape, his desire for drink, his desire for power?).  And Prospero does acknowledge Caliban as his own: “This thing of darkness I/ Acknowledge mine” (5.1.274-275). If we read Caliban as representing Prospero’s repressed desires, then…yikes…attempted rape of Miranda? That does seem to be along the lines of what the film suggests, with Dr. Morbius being so upset when Miranda falls in love with the Captain.

We might also read the scene where Prospero suddenly remembers the plot against his life by Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo as his unconscious suddenly coming to the fore, coming through when he had tried to repress it (4.1.139). Caliban’s plot could represent Prospero’s own desire for power and his willingness to even kill to get it. Vicente mentioned in class on Wednesday that he thought Prospero might have meant to kill Alonso, Sebastian and Antonio, and I said I hadn’t gotten that, but there is a suggestion in the play that he might have had this in mind. In 5.1, Ariel says that if he were human, he would be touched with pity at the sight of those three, and Gonzalo weeping over them, and Prospero responds by saying that if Ariel can feel a touch of pity, how much more should Prospero himself. So he says, “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,/ Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury/ Do I take part. The rarer action is/ In virtue than in vengeace” (5.1.25-28). He gets a hold of himself, controls his passions, and after this releases the three from their spell. And this all right after he and Ariel have stopped Caliban’s plot!


That’s all I have the time write about right now, but I’d be curious to hear what others think of these suggestions…