The Devil You Know

            The different stories that we looked at this week gave a lot of insight into how families of different backgrounds operate. The story I found to be the most compelling was the story “My Son the Fanatic” by Hanif Kureishi. This is the story of an immigrant family told through the eyes of the father which is unusual as most stories of immigrant families are told through the eyes of the children in my experience. Parvez is growing concerned about his son and is trying to understand why he is suddenly so different than he once was, giving up hobbies and beloved possessions and becoming deeply involved in religion. This parallels in many ways the disconnect or general lack of understanding parents have about their children and their interests while also giving the reader a glimpse into a life that they have only read about in news articles. In the year 2019 it is obvious to the reader what is really happening, but when this story was published in 1997, this wasn’t something you heard about nearly as often as we do today. In today’s news in the post 9/11 society that we live in and post Iraq/Afghanistan, this is something that we are aware of and even fear.

            It wasn’t too long ago that I was reading a series of articles about women from different cities around the country who had joined ISIS. The sharp contrast between their normal American upbringings, some not even having a background in Islam, and their new radical beliefs was something I found to be astonishing. The absolute transformation that these seemingly normal women would undergo was terrifying. Some of these articles would post copies of their social media posts showing just how outspoken and callous towards human life some of these women could become after leaving their old life and selves behind to join ISIS. This story gave the reader a glimpse into what it is like for the loved ones of these people who find their loved ones plunging headfirst into the mindset and actions of radical Islamic culture, this is something that seems unfathomable and improbable because it is something that only happens in the news and to people other than you or someone you know. You never think that it will be your son or daughter who has become someone unrecognizable to their own friends and family. That is for the parents who were not trying and that haven’t been good parents who help their child to have the best life they possibly can.

Ancient History

            I’ve always been a huge fan of literature with a darker side to it so this week was very much enjoyable for me. History is full of hidden pasts that many would prefer forgotten or brushed off as mistakes, but when one truly stops to think about it some of these dark moments in history are not all that far removed from the present, my grandparents were adults during the civil rights movements and desegregation in the 1960’s and in the poem, “The Dolls Museum in Dublin” by Eavan Boland it draws inspiration from an Irish revolt called Easter Monday in 1916, two years before my mother’s father was born and therefore during the time of my great-grandparents. Looking at these tragic and even horrifically deadly moments in history that we try to remove ourselves from it is chilling to think that for some people the perpetrators of the violent acts of these events could be a close relative, a grandparent or a great-uncle or someone that they grew up caring for and admiring. These historical monsters still have living children and grandchildren, we walk the same Earth as the children of Nazi soldiers and revolutionaries which is something that is not often brought up whether consciously or not.

            This subtle method of pushing unsavory events and hiding them amongst ancient history is somewhat addressed in Seamus Heaney’s poetry, such as “Punishment,” Haney brings the history into the present in his works. He takes historical finds and modernizes them such as bog bodies, making it so that the atrocities of the past are recounted in real time by the speaker. This may seem as if it were a simple and obvious way to tell the story of a young girl who was thought to have been asphyxiated and body weighed down in a bog which ended up preserving it for millennia and generations to come. The young girl was punished in a way that was supposedly utilized generally for adulterous women, blaming them in a manner as the cause for their own death. Promiscuity as motive for them losing their lives, which the speaker realizes is not a worthy reason for death but admits that he himself would have stood aside and allowed the punishment to occur. That this was not simply a problem of ancient history as events such as the witch hunts have proven, women are scapegoated and blamed for their agency and perceived impurities. While the witch trials may also seem far in the past it is not uncommon to hear of acid attacks in some parts of the world even today, atrocities are not something that humanity has outgrown or shed like a snakeskin. They are now. They are a pervasive aspect of mankind that much as we try we cannot brush under the rug or hide. 

A.N.A fun fact I learned when looking up Heaney’s “Punishment” is that the titular bog body was later discovered to be an adolescent male who likely died due to poor health and whose head may not have even been shaved. 

“You think the only people are the people who look and think like you”

Image result for these white men are dangerous

            I’m not going to lie, this was my first time reading Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” The title is familiar as I remember friends in high school complaining about having to read it in their English class but I was in another class so I never got to experience it then. Now here I am years later, wishing I had memories of class discussions to help me untangle my thoughts on the story. I know that it’s a complex look at imperialism and British colonialism, that isn’t quite as clear cut as I’d like it to be, but every time I see the word savage used I internally groan at the blatant dehumanization and racism implied in the word. I also know that the characters in here are insufferable in their British sense of superiority which is overbearing just from a historical view without having to read it from the perspective of actual British men. I’m also not here for the white men’s desire to stake their claim on things that belong to native people just because they belong to non-white peoples who are immediately considered to be less than just because they are non-white and non-English. Growing up as a child I know that I was lucky enough to be alive during a time where there is a lot of focus on political correctness and equality for all regardless of sex, sexuality, religion, and ethnicity but the blatant racism in older literature has always been slightly jarring to me because of it. I remember specifically in high school being amazed by the slurs in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and even now I’m still not comfortable with the casualness at which people are dehumanized in literature like this. I don’t even think it was malicious on Conrad’s part it was simply factual in a way that points to institutionalized racism.

            Once I move past the treatment of non-white characters and imperialism I still don’t enjoy the story. The ending of it bothers me specifically the lie he tells about Kurtz’s last words. I understand that he is sugarcoating it for the grieving woman Kurtz left behind, but in doing so he is also erasing the actual legacy that Kurtz left behind. The fact is that he is contributing to Kurtz’s untarnished reputation as a great man, allowing people to ignore and gloss over his actual character as well as the atrocities that he committed while he was alive. That is something I am not okay with at all. I have a lot of issues with this story as I do with many stories written in this time and I have a difficult time getting past these issues. I just feel like all of these stories deserve a whole Pocahontas moment like in Disney, “You think I’m an ignorant savage” and then the native characters school the invading white men on their own savagery. 

Sexual Agency in James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” are wonderful examples of another trend that began in this time frame, women taking control of their sexual agency. Both works utilize stream of consciousness to characterize the actions that their female protagonists take in regards to their sexual desires and liaisons. This is a role that in the past was only granted to men as women were not supposed to experience sexual desire in the same way that men were and these are two foundational works that supplied the basis for others to follow in their footsteps when creating dynamic female characters with aspirations and desires. It was an important step because if women were allowed to desire things even within literature then it is not a huge step to think that women in everyday life could also desire things. Literature and art after all do have a way of influencing society and common culture as well as the other way around.

I have never read the full novel of “Ulysses” but I have read “Dubliners” and while there are strong female characters within the short stories, Molly Bloom is an extremely fascinating character. She is much more open with her desires and her thoughts than the women of “Dubliners” and it allows us more insight into her character and her personality, although much of this is due to the style in which it is written some of it is that she is a thoroughly modern woman with thoughts and views reflective of the times and even though some of these thoughts may not be socially acceptable the open desire and thoughts on her marriage give a lot of insight into marriage of the times. She is a married woman which in some ways limits her, but on the other hand as a wife she is provided with a sense of support in her husband. There is also depictions of sexual encounters outside of marriages which may seem odd to us now as we tend to think of people of this time as prudish and asexual almost, but it shows that people have always been people and that we haven’t really changed all that much from our ancestors.

Terror and Cynicism in the Face of War

The early 20th century was a time of great social and political change and this is reflected in the literature of the time. It was a time of uncertainty and upheaval with war on the horizon, not just any war but the great war, the war to end all wars, The fear and chaos of war was an ever present threat and it appeared in much of the literature at the time, literature as a whole was becoming more modern, hence the modernist movement. The writers of the time were more open to criticizing and speaking against things such as war. Much of the writings were anti-war or attempted to realistically depict the horrors and dangers that soldiers in the first world war would have encountered. There was a revolution of social values at the time but much of the propaganda was pro-war which may seem to contradict what was being written about but the propaganda being pushed was being pushed by governments rather than the individual citizens. Criticism was something that was now more open to the population as they were more educated than ever before, leading to an increase in the availability of writings that were aimed towards the thoughts and sentiments of the common man, rather than the well educated elite members of society.

This increase in general education had a huge effect on the society at the time because it now allowed everyone access to things they could not understand before such as art, literature, and even religion as this was the first time that the majority of people could read the Bible for themselves rather than hear it interpreted by different members of the church. This may have led in part to the cynical ironic tone that literature of the time tended to take, it was overall very depressing. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” are both rather dark looks at the effect that war has on society. This may have been a time of great change but it was not necessarily a hopeful time. The impending war was terrifying and everyone knew that it would impact society greatly but no one knew in what ways and it was this fear of the future unknown that lurked in the background of literature of the time.

The Duality of Man

I think the most important thing I took from both Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” was their interesting usage of the duality of people. People are multi-dimensional and all of the protagonists of these two works display that sense of multi-dimensionality quite literally. In the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde it is extremely literal. All of the characters use the duality of their other personality to accomplish things that are not always moral but they go about this in very different ways. It may be by inventing a sick friend they visit when they do not wish to fulfill social obligations, which isn’t much different than making bad excuses to avoid going out with friends or a particularly persistent date. It could be that you invent a brother who you must help because he parties in the city and gets into all sort of trouble, when really it’s just you avoiding being a responsible adult and making excuses to go let loose in the city. Or if it is fictional like in this example, there is always creating a serum that brings out the immoral side of your personality and gives it form so you can do whatever you desire without ruining your good reputation.

The different ways in which they go about it may be different but their reasonings are all fairly similar with desires to avoid responsibilities or the pressures of maintaining their good image, so they create a persona that does not have to fulfill these duties and responsibilities. The most interesting and unrealistic of the three is obviously Jekyll/Hyde who appear to be completely different people because of the lack of control that Jekyll has over his other persona. This implicates a full split in the two personalities as they have differing desires and Hyde’s vices appear to be more serious than the ones that Jekyll was attempting to gain the freedom to partake in unless Jekyll had always secretly wished to be a murderer. The dual personality trope is one that is commonly used in television and films as well as other forms of media now. For example there is the Hulk from the ever popular Marvel franchise or more innocently the Disney show Hannah Montana, these both encompass the double life or dual personality trope but they show that their influences can be very different as well as their goals. It is a trope that does not necessarily require a monstrous angle if the character’s goal is innocent, but it can be expressed that way. I mean one could even say that superhero movies as a whole are inspired by the dual personality trope, with the civilian and vigilante aspect that is present in a number of comics and media adaptions. Were they inspired by Wilde and Stevenson’s portrayals? Possibly.

Victorian Romance and Pushing the Boundaries

The further into the Victorian Era that we get the more varied the portrayals of love and sexuality get. This is around the time that at least for the British authors they are beginning to choose topics that challenge societal norms and standards. This is when we begin to see more explicit depictions of adultery, sexual agency, and homosexuality in published writings of the time. Though it may seem to be subtle to us, at the time of publication some of these works certainly would have caused a stir and possibly a bit of scandal. This may be why some of the authors chose to set works in ancient times and places where they could claim to just be showing a place where different values applied. Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper for example drew inspiration from ancient Greek poetry by Sappho who is notable for her depictions of women with other women. They published under the name of Michael Fielding and “Maids, Not to You My Mind Doth Change” is a wonderful example of how authors managed to get away with publishing works with blatant lesbian leanings by disguising it within a poem about nymphs and ancient Greece which was viewed as culturally important historically but overall very foreign and over romanticized as a pagan, non-Christian society.

Algernon Charles Swinburne also wrote about ancient Greece and non-Christian sentiments. He wrote “Hermaphroditus” and by borrowing a character with both male and female attributes managed to sneak a lot of homoerotic subtext into a poem about how sex and sensuality would work with a character who was neither male or female but rather both. He focused on the male aspects of this sexuality which was his own way of depicting a relationship between two males while still being able to publish his work. He did enjoy upsetting people though and his work, “Hymn to Proserpine” starts out strong with a blatant criticism of Christianity and Jesus that forms the entirety of the poem. He was a man who was not afraid of the backlash that his writing would receive but in order for his poetry to reach a wider audience it was easier to disguise it within a historical context.

Not all of the writer chose to utilize ancient Greece for their historical setting, some chose times in the more recent past such as William Morris’s depiction of Medieval times in “The Defense of Guenevere,” this was not an attempt to depict homosexuality but rather to attribute a sense of agency to a pre-existing character. If the story of Guenevere already attributes adultery to the character, why not allow her to use her sexuality as a weapon as well. In this story, she is arguing for her freedom against a panel of lustful male characters and is willing to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve her goals. This may not seem as taboo as homosexuality but as a repressed society any form of sexuality was not openly discussed or alluded to in much of the media of the times. By relocating the stories to another time and place they were more easily accepted by others at the time of their publication.

The Women Behind the Curtain

There is a saying that well behaved women rarely make history and this is to a certain extent true in Victorian Era British literature. Though there are a multitude of poems and stories about women, many are of idealized, perfected views of women. They may claim to be portrayals of real women but many appear to be romanticized Mary Sues that may resemble a specific woman to a point, painting her without flaw or weakness. The other major type of woman central literature we find is an abundance of examples of the male gaze at work, these may appear to be focused on the woman being depicted, but little is actually ever learned about the woman and mostly about the male narrator and his own personal beliefs and thoughts. This may not appear to be a major issue but the lack of female writers representing their own gender led to a certain type of woman being written by the majority of authors of the time. As Coventry Patmore put it, an “angel in the house.” Women were not written in a realistic manner but were instead idealized and made into untouchable objects of perfection by romantic writers of the time. This may not seem like a big deal, but the contrast when compared to the women that Christina Rossetti or Florence Nightingale wrote is immense.

In Florence Nightingales’s “Cassandra” she expresses her anger at the limitations and expectations placed upon her by society. She is a woman who is not content to stay at home and be the supportive wife in the background who quietly helps her husband who brings home the bread while she makes sure that the home is clean and warm and loving for him. The sentiments in “Cassandra” are sentiments that are still valid today in the fight against the patriarchy and sexism in general. Women in the workforce may not be a new concept anymore but equal pay is something that we have yet to truly achieve. Christina Rossetti on the other hand is slightly more subtle in the way she challenges the stereotypical female characters by allowing them to be human. In “The Goblin Market” we see that the girls are allowed to be flawed and to have desires for things that might not be good for them or something that they are told not to want. The girls are not perfect angelic daughters without agency, but rather imperfect sisters who love each other rather than an unnamed husband. They are allowed to make choices that they can learn from rather than relegated to the home to have their choices made for them. “In an Artist’s Studio” on the other hand Rossetti challenges the trope of the male gaze by giving the female being studied a voice and opinions that would not have been focused upon by the man or in this case artist watching her. Though these may seem like minor things that were done by the female authors, this paved the way for more accurate portrayals of female characters and female writers of the future.