The Book of Genesis is nothing new to me.The stories contained within it have been told to me for as long as I can remember, first as a preschooler in Sunday School. and later throughout 13 years of Catholic education. These continuous retellings left little room for interpretation; we were told the story, why it was important and what it meant. This information was drilled into my mind so thoroughly that I never had any doubt that the way I had been told the tales was the only truth. Being asked to examine the Book of Genesis from an objective standpoint, and to discover meaning, connections and themes was something I never considered and found very difficult to do.
It was not because I was I was deeply religiously connected to the stories that this essay was so hard to write for me, but rather the challenge of looking at things from a new standpoint and delving deeper into texts I had for so long thought I knew. I realised that over the many years of hearing the stories, I had begun to not think of them as part of a book, but rather as commonplace tales that everyone just knows. It was extremely difficult for me push past this immediate recognition and regurgitation of Genesis, and to come up with arguments to support ideas and thoughts that conflicted so bizarrely with what I thought I knew about this book.
The chance to explore this text with a new perspective has allowed me to see the possibilities that arise from looking at old stories in a new light, and how allowing myself to let go of preconceived notions can open many new areas of thought.
Soren Kiekergaard’s Fear and Trembling instills a sense of curiosity and confusion in me. I find most readers share this opinion, as the text takes many different directions. Kierkegaard chose to focus his text on the Abraham and Isaac story, a tale of a father who is instructed by the ‘God’ figure to sacrifice his son. There can be found many interpretations as to the reasons behind why God asked Abraham to sacrifice his kin but I want to offer my ideas. I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘why’ behind both God’s and Abraham’s actions.
Though it is never stated in Genesis that God is omniscient, there are indications of Him possessing advanced knowledge. He is understood as a powerful being, having created plants, animals, man, etc. Readers aren’t given much sense of God’s character. His emotions, thoughts, and interior workings, if He even possesses these qualities, aren’t expressed in Genesis, which leads a reader to question the purpose and motives of the God figure in Genesis. When Kierkegaard poses the controversial and unsettling question of why God told the human He created to commit murder, we grapple with a satisfactory answer. I’ve been playing with the idea that maybe God wanted to set the example that He should be honoured, revered and respected above all else including the ethical responsibility to family. I’m sure we all shudder at the notion of asking one to commit murder to prove that another human is of less importance than the divine. It’s an idea I find unnerving but also interesting. From the text of Genesis, we know God has some form of knowledge that is beyond comprehension; he seems to know things he shouldn’t or would have no way of knowing. Therefore, we can assume, based strictly from what I’m extracting from the text, that He is above humans. His level of intelligence and superiority is above mankind. After all, he did create the human race. He came first and has reign over his creation of the human race. If we assume this, could it be likely that He wanted Abraham to demonstrate his utter obedience and trust to God? Abraham did not commit murder. He was instructed to do so, but God stopped him before the deed was committed. Maybe the reason Abraham acquiesced was due to his devotion to God. On page 95 of Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard says that, “faith is a passion.” I personally agree with this statement and see this reflected in Abraham’s actions. I believe he obeys God because the awe and fear of God is so ingrained within him that he can’t imagine saying no to God. Kierkegaard touches on this on page 58 of Fear and Trembling in reference to Abraham, “‘his greatness was that he so loved God that he was willing to offer him the best he had.'” Maybe that dominion over man is what God wanted to put through its paces. The idea of God experimenting and testing His creation is an interesting idea to scrutinize. Potentially in the Abraham story this experimentation and questioning of the abilities of man plays out.
I think a large part of understanding the Abraham and Isaac story is to first understand the character of God as He holds such a critical role. I present the question for further exploration, is it possible that God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac, and instead wanted to use the relationship of father and son to test the spiritual tenacity of mankind?
“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 490)
This week, I revisited Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for Arts One. This text is one that has, in many ways, haunted me for almost a decade. I’ve read it several times, recommended it to others, and most importantly, struggled with it. Because you are meant to struggle with this text. It is meant to unsettle you, create dis-ease, confusion, uncertainty and–to put it bluntly–blow your mind. It is an exercise in thinking about something beyond thought, after all! And I think that’s why the text has always intrigued me. I am fascinated by the idea of pushing thought further and further, of testing the boundaries of intelligible reason, of wondering why Kierkegaard found himself so caught up in the intelligibility of the Abraham story.
On that last point, there is one enduring theory that is referenced even in the introduction to our own edition: Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen. Kierkegaard’s father was a melancholy man who was consumed by guilt and depression. His guilt was never entirely explained, but may have derived from the fact that he slept with Kierkegaard’s mother out of wedlock when she was still a maid in his home. Kierkegaard appears to have inherited this depressed, melancholy and guilt-ridden temperament from his father. His mother and several of his seven siblings died before Kierkegaard was 21, many dying in childhood. Kierkegaard himself was convinced that he would not live much past 33, though again, the reason for this is unclear. But this back-story is necessary in order to understand Kierkegaard’s relationship with Regine Olsen.
Kierkegaard met Regine in 1837 and proposed to her in 1840. She accepted him. However, in 1841, Kierkegaard broke off the engagement, much to Olsen’s confusion and dismay. When he was asked why, Kierkegaard never did give a satisfactory answer. Some speculate that he broke the engagement off because he was afraid of his impending early death, and fearful of leaving Olsen widowed. Some said he was fearful that his melancholy temperament would make him an unsuitable husband and father. But some people suppose that Olsen was Kierkegaard’s Isaac; she was his test of faith. That is, Kierkegaard sometimes claimed that he could not see how be a good husband and father and be the religious scholar he felt called upon to be at the same time. While this might be dismissed as someone making the decision to pursue fame and glory over pursuing a life of home and family (a perfectly rational and intelligible decision) some scholars suggest that this is only what Kierkegaard said. What he meant, what he could not say, was that he was being tested.
If he was being tested, it seems possible that he failed the test. He never got Olsen back (as Abraham got Isaac). Instead, she married another, and Kierkegaard lived alone. However, indications are that he never stopped loving Olsen. He left everything to her in his will. If he failed the test, it seems to have been because he could not sustain the duel movement of faith. Indeed, Johannes de Silentio claims at many places in Fear and Trembling to be able to understand, and even to make, the move of infinite resignation (giving up Isaac/Olsen) but not the double-movement required of faith (giving up Isaac/Olsen, but still believing that one will get him/her back somehow). That is, de Silentio cannot sustain the paradox of believing two conflicting beliefs. And it is possible that Kierkegaard cannot as well.
So, Kierkegaard’s fascination with the Abraham/Isaac story is often thought to result from his own love, and loss of, Regine Olsen. But I don’t want to jump too quickly to the conclusion that Kierkegaard and de Silentio are the same person, or share the same experiences and perspectives. They may, they may not. Indeed, part of the reason Kierkegaard may have written under this pseudonym may have been to distance himself from these ideas and theories. Another reason may have been his desire for us to meet these ideas on their own merits, and not do what I just did: explain them away as a result of Kierkegaard’s past experience.
Still, when I read this text, I am vividly aware of how intimate and passionate it is. This is not an essay. It is, as one student recently put it to me, more like a diary, or a stream of consciousness. It is a personal exploration of an old myth. Whether he intended to or not, whether this is about Olsen or not, the text will contain elements of Kierkegaard’s identity within it, simply because he wrote it. And, in writing it, he brought his own lived experiences to bear. This doesn’t invalidate Kierkegaard’s reading of the Abraham/Isaac story, nor do I think it allows us to dismiss his interpretation. What it does do, is illuminate something interesting about interpreting texts. Interpretation is personal. It is a meeting of you and the myth. You bring your life experiences to the meeting, and the myth brings all the past interpretations and discussions. But what comes out of this meeting is unique.
Which brings me to the quote from Camus with which I started this blog post. It’s one of my favorite Arts One quotes. And I think Kierkegaard exemplifies it. He breathes life into this Abraham story, possibly by breathing his own lived experiences, his own unfulfilled hopes and dreams, into the myth from Genesis. And in doing so, he attempts to flesh out the subtle characterizations of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah as represented in the original biblical text. We may not agree with the life he breathed into these texts. We may take issue with them, or delight in them, or be unsettled or confused by them. And we may want to breathe our own life both into Fear and Trembling and into Genesis itself.
All these options are open to us this week. In speaking about these texts, we bring them to life again. But, in speaking about them, we aren’t being silent.
Perhaps that’s another reason Johannes di Silentio (and by extension, Kierkegaard) returns to this text. Perhaps his obsession with this text was a way to drown out the silence.
For more on Kierkegaard and Regine Olsen, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/
After having watched Apocalypse now (redux version) I couldn’t help but think of the true reality that occurred during the war. Lies most often overwhelmed these soldiers without them even knowing it and deviated them from a path of reality towards a path of madness.
As the movie progresses it is visible that madness begins to seep into the individuals which had accompanied Willard (and Willard himself) in his journey along the Nung River to find Kurtz. As a result of this, the individuals become more separated from reality.
Here are a few examples of how some characters developed throughout the movie:
Willard: He had already been affected by his previous deployment in Vietnam, and now, he had become obsessed with reaching his target, Kurtz. Willard knows the effects that the war can bring upon a man, and thus he tries to overpower the idea of madness by repressing these thoughts. Nevertheless, throughout the journey he starts to realize that in times of war, deception is almost inevitable. We can see an instance where Willard’s desire to reach Kurtz has drove him to do cruel things; this instance is visible when Willard kills the injured woman on the boat at point blank (minute 94). I feel as if Willard did not know what made sense anymore, and trying to make sense of everything begins to drive him mad.
Lance: His transformations throughout the movie, in my opinion, are the most noticeable. Lance starts out as a dedicated soldier and is always alert to his surroundings. As the journey goes on he starts consuming drugs in order to try and isolate himself from the war that is occurring around him. Around minute 106, when the boat is under attack Lance makes a comparison to Disneyland, “this is better than Disneyland”. Here we can see a comparison made between war and a theme park, thus I believe it is a statement that implies an escape from reality and/ or madness itself.
Chef: His transformations are similar to that of Lances, but with a hint of emotional breakdowns. Since the beginning of the movie Chefs frustration is visible, as he has a desire to return home and become a saucier. As the journey through the Nung develops, Chef decides to escape the war by consuming drugs as well. Furthermore his anxiety and anger are a key factor in developing his madness. This is most visible when Clean dies during an enemy encounter (minute 107); here we can see how Chef emotionally breaks down after having confronted the reality of death and of their current situation.
Whilst watching the movie I found myself feeling anxious and so I think that Coppola managed to portray a very good image of the war and with it, madness itself.
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.)
Among my high school friend group, we have a running joke; whenever there is an awkward silence someone chips in “I want to talk about yams.” (Yes, we’re dorks.) As this joke was established before my time in HK, the only info that I was given about this inside joke was that Lorraine wanted to talk about yams, and it had something to do with Things Fall Apart.
In this blog post I hope to solve one of the big mysteries in my life: Why did Lorraine want to talk about yams? And what made this so funny? (Actually, knowing how goofy my friends are there is most likely no logical explanation for why this is funny. :P )
So… *makeshift awkward silence… I want to talk about yams.
From what I’ve looked at so far, yams seem to reflect material wealth and one’s manliness. Or perhaps these two things are viewed as the same…
Just in chapter 1 we can already start to see a hierarchy of people forming around the number of wives one has, and the amount of yams. Okoye has one large barn full of yams and 3 wives whereas Okonkwo has 2 barns full of yams and just married his third wife. Okonkwo is later described as “one of the greatest men of his time” (8). Maybe in this example, wives are seen to represent manliness and quantity of yams material wealth, so Okonkwo would be seen as a ‘better’ person in terms of these factors. Although interestingly enough Okoye’s barn of yams is described as “large” whereas Okonkwo has two… It’s a little bit unclear who actually has more yams…
Another interesting incident with yams is when Ikemefuna would not eat. The quote is, “When Okonkwo heard that he would not eat any food he came into the hut with a big stick in his hand and stood over him while he swallowed his yams, trembling. A few moments later he went behind the hut and began to vomit painfully.” (27-28) Perhaps this characterizes Ikemefuna in a more manly light than Okonkwo. If yams represent manliness, the fact that Ikemefuna is “swallowing yams” whereas Okonkwo is merely holding a stick, Ikemefuna may be the manlier of the two. This could be reflected in Okonkwo’s actions when he kills Ikemefuna. Okonkwo does not want to look weak infront of the other tribesmen, however, perhaps not wanting to look weak is a form of weakness in itself. Defying the expectations of Okonkwo’s other tribe members would have been a stronger act.
Yams are also described as “the king of crops, was a man’s crop.” Whereas the “women worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava.” (22-23) I believe that it was said somewhere that the women would plant their crops in between the yams… I’m not sure what to make of this, any thoughts? :D
this will be a short one, definitely. i have very little i feel like “exploring” or analyzing about this book. i have a question instead, which i sort of mentioned during seminar, but allow me to elaborate for a little while.
while reading this book i found myself thinking of trouillot and his discussion of silence–specifically silence within historical documents.
what would he think of chinua achebe’s things fall apart?
is it, in it’s own right, a historical document (an exercise in preservation/representation?), despite its obviously fictitious/novelistic qualities, and if so, what silences might it perpetuate? surely they would differ from the silences we’d expect from a more formal, academic text.
and if we’re looking at this book as a potential response to books such as heart of darkness which may perpetuate the idea that certain people are “primitive,” passive, or even inhuman– if this book is attempting to provide a fuller and more honest perspective of a certain culture or people, then perhaps we should be paying close attention to its silences?
(one such “silence” might be the choice to write the book in english.)
and this is a bit of a connection (and a bit of a stretch) to my last (and basically only other) blog post, but if you haven’t read it, don’t worry –
both wollstonecraft and orwell appear to agree that there is such a thing as “bad novels/novelists,” and such a thing as harmful fiction, but the ways in which they cope with that fact, and the way in which it influences their writing is vastly different. wollstonecraft condemns novels in favour of political treatises and orwell writes largely allegorical, politically motivated works of fiction.
while wollstonecraft and orwell’s respective goals and tactics cannot be easily compared (due perhaps to the different circumstances in which they are writing) they can both be seen as pursuing reform of some kind.
perhaps, then, within this progression towards reform there is room for both authors and both methods.
so perhaps within this pursuit of recorded history and its contingent identities, there is space for a linear, informed, historical text, cited, and based with evidentiary support within “reality” (such as haiti, state against nation, one of trouillot’s other books) as well as room for a work of fiction which draws from a subjective experience of a culture. (such as things fall apart)
possibly the silences in one work could provide us with clues about the silences in another?
and in that case
does the discovery of silences and their implications help us form more accurate perceptions of history?