Archive for the category “Essays”

A Writer

Am I a writer?

I haven’t published in over a month, my journal is out of date, my reading neglected, and my next novels languish as half-written sentences and outlines.

Yet I have the gall to tell people I meet that I am a writer.

I give the usual excuses for not placing pen to paper and not opening the computer: I’ve been busy lately; I’m working full time and moving; and, I do think about my stories all the time.

Am I a writer if I neglect my writing in favor of thinking?

I’ve heard that Milton dictated Paradise Lost and never inked a quill; that Joyce spent days thinking over a single sentence; that Austen thought works into being that are subtle critiques of her society. They are called writers, so maybe a Writer is someone who cares for their language and thinks before they pen.

I wonder if they feared to disturb the Universe?

Am I writer if I let life and fear prevent me from writing?

When faced with the uncertainty of the future I find my pen quaking and futility sprawling across my pages. The Universe is far too vast to be disturbed by the symbols of my small ideas, and the marks a mortal leaves are faint, washable things.

Even so, after a while I find my muse nudging me back to the pages and urging me to record her stories and poetries, and to form a linguistic image from the material granted me.

“Silence is a call to reflect” she tells me, “neglect is a chance to care, and forgetfulness the moment to remember.”

I am flawed and inconsistent, but I am a writer.


Fictional Realism

Dear You,

I know it’s been awhile since I wrote, but I wanted to get your take on this idea I’m playing with:

The idea is that the world is a massive book: an encyclopedia which, like Hermione’s bag, can be entered and explored. How I picture it is as a maze of letters: rows of books within books and shelves upon shelves containing and composing the history of the Universe. It’s the Library of Babel and the number 42. It’s extensive, complete, and vast, but ultimately limited to the constraints of Time.

What this means, I think, is that the split seconds are recorded with intensive detail by some unknown “scribes” of this encyclopedia, and the day to day realities of life are reduced to a story which, in our histories, are perceived as fictions even though they really occurred. That is, Napolean is no longer a person, but a character in a story because we can only know the man through the written texts. And, like a character in a fiction, our understanding of these historical figures are limited by the information we have available.

In fact, every interaction we have in the day-to-day is reduced to a kind of vague document outlining the events, but lacking the minutia of the split thoughts and partial comprehensions.

This encyclopedia or library, then, is a multifaceted construct which preserves both the crust and the core of these histories. Some of the entries or books provide the minutia, while some relate only the vaguest of suppositions.

It’s difficult for me to digest, but it’s like this: the world is literature, and we are readers and critics assessing the story and pulling meaning from the words we understand.

I’m not sure how this thought came to my brain, I think, perhaps, from reviewing my old journals and realizing that I understand and imagine the past in the same way that I understand and imagine the stories I read.

I’d like to know what you think of this,

I’m not sure when I’ll write again, but I will when I will.

Until the previous time we’ve met,

Your friend


Bloomsday 2014: Sing In Me, Muse…

Aside from presuming to reference the Odyssey (which I’ve read only once in a Freshman philosophy course four years ago), I’m also presuming to write about Bloomsday, that is, Ulysses, by James Joyce.

Bloomsday, if you don’t know, is today: 16 June, 2014. It is a commemoration of the life and work of James Joyce, and it is based on his monstrous novel Ulysses which takes place on this day in 1904.

I’ll confess, I’m sort of jumping on the band wagon rather late: I only realized Bloomsday was a thing last month, when I visited the James Joyce Centre in Dublin. There I learned something about Joyce and his work, and today I’m just beginning to understand.

My understanding began when, in the spirit of the wagon, I wanted to know what people do on Bloomsday. Perhaps, consume a mutton kidney, or take a walk by the beach, or, in the evening- well, somethings are best left unsaid.

But it was this search for involvement that lead me to an article in Vanity Fair called “Bloomsday is a Travesty, but Not for the Reason You Think” (James S. Murphy). This article made me more aware of just how little I know about James Joyce and his work.

Murphy discusses the history of Ulysses as a vulgar, banned text, and how Joyce as a writer would probably be bothered by the holiness of the day.

“Bloomsday celebrations treat Joyce too much like a saint and his book too much like a gospel to be revered first and read later, if at all. By placing Ulysses on a pedestal, we lose sight of both its vulgar origins and its power to tell us deep truths about our world and ourselves precisely by keeping the earthy and obscene aspects of ourselves in view.”

So this makes me wonder about the text. I’ve started the text twice in the last three years, while attending college and taking classes, and both times I found that I could not immerse myself enough to get anything out it. Like a “gospel”, it is a text that requires a great deal of time and energy to read well, and a reader who isn’t prepared to immerse fully in the text will miss out.

But I’m presuming again, to talk about books I haven’t read as though I have some knowledge from my own understanding! What I’m writing here is still only a parrot of the mind of Murphy and, through Murphy, a man named Birmingham.

“Luckily,” wrote Murphy, “a new book by the literary scholar Kevin Birmingham, The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, can help us recall Ulysses for what it was and should still be, a shocking novel that tore at decency and tradition as it clawed its way into existence rather than a “classic” that sits happily on an educated person’s bookshelf for eternity, never to be pulled down.”

Here, like the sinner in the pews, I’m finding moral conviction from the words of this literary “preacher”. And I’m beginning to experience Joyce as a fellow writer and human being. I can’t say I know diddly about his work, but I can say that I’ve started a journey with an uncertain end. I’m parroting these writers now, but maybe we all need the crutches of another’s words as we learn to speak for ourselves.

So here is the beginning of my appreciation of Joyce and general literature: the affirmation that literature is seeping, and slow-working. Though I’ll parrot Murphy again, he expresses this with a paraphrase:

“Birmingham compared reading Ulysses to taking a slow-acting drug that gradually reshapes our understanding of ourselves, working its way into our consciousness as we read it, unsettling who we are.”

So, on this Bloomsday, read well and read carefully, but be warned: you may find your understanding altered.



Reformation of Procrastination

I’m taking a class on the History of the Reformation, Absolution, and Enlightenment Europe, which covers a period from 1500 – 1789. I have a paper due that is supposed to use 1000 – 1500 words to describe how the Martin Luther’s Reformation affected 16th century society and examine some of the central ideas of said Reformation. It’s been difficult to start writing about that, however, and so I’m thinking about the things I should be writing about while by writing this for your general information and guidance in the world of collegiate Lit-majors. Procrastination, then, is the main idea of this entry, but, in order to demonstrate my point, I will tie procrastination into ideas of the Reformation and present to you a new kind of reformation I’ll call: The Reformation of Procrastination. This new reformation operates under the edict, “make procrastination look useful” and will alter the world much in the same way Luther’s Reformation changed society if allowed to take root and influence the lives of students and corporate leaders alike (though, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to both collectively as ‘students’).

Instead of writing essays or doing assigned reading that carries a burden of grade and uncertain utility, students could volunteer in animal shelters, participate in Community Theater or cleaning projects, and organize their desks. Indeed, such a move from the standard organization of the modern world where teachers (used here to included corporate executives and other authorities) rule over these purgatorial pages of letters and learning, would allow students a more individualized approach to education. Remarkable as it seems this move would parallel Martin Luther’s Reformation of the 16th Century because the central idea of his thesis was empowerment of individuals.

Luther’s Reformation called into question the power of the Catholic Church over matters of faith and politics, as well as the spiritual hierarchy, and emphasized the equity of the individual in the body of Christ. Luther wrote in an address to the German Nobility of 1520 “All Christians are of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone”.

His statement, referred to a Biblical idea of the “body of Christ” which compared different people to different parts of the body, emphasizing the utility of having hands and feet, eyes and nose, and condemned what I’ll call “part-ism”: where, say, ‘eye people’ will accept only other ‘eye people’ and create a body composed of eyes. You can see that such a body would be useless as a body, though eye jelly would certainly become a possibility. More applicable to Luther’s cause, and my own, is the sense of a hierarchy in the body. For the Catholic Church of Luther’s time, and our own, the Pope (call him the ‘head’ though I’ll not specify of what) was the primary leader and authority of the Church, and as the head the Pope was held in a higher position nearer to their God. The authorities of the time were on a similar hierarchical level because they were thought to be divinely ordained to rule.

Now, these heads of society were held over the mouths, and eyes, and nose etc. of the social body while the feet, and toes, and toenails (peasantry), were kept on the lower rungs of social serfdom. These lower members were purely for the use or satisfaction of the upper members, and the heads enforced their supremacy by reminding the feet that to be a head was certainly much better than being a foot, and the feet were often abused by the head. My metaphor is getting a bit out of hand at this point, so I’d like to simplify and summarize my meaning: the head was abusing the other members needlessly. Luther, then, considered the bodily function of each individual as their ‘office’ but held that there was no difference in rank because a head without feet is unbalanced. The idea, then, was that the head (which protects the brain which guides the hands) should strive to ensure the entire body is well cared for. Let the head wash the feet and provide rest when rest is needed by acknowledging the inter-reliance of the various body parts.

The educational hierarchy is comparable to the body, where students and teachers are hands and mouths where, without hands, the mouth has difficulty eating and without the mouth the hands cannot receive energy from the entrails. The entrails, then, are the intermediaries between student and teacher which ‘digest’ the economic food of the students’ enrollment to process and produce a form of energy to better equip the teachers and students to feed one another. Their efforts, in turn, feed a larger social body with energies that go to some unspecified head. In theory our digestive efforts benefit ourselves and society, though, all in all, the utility of our efforts cannot be proved. My procrastination proclamation embraces the uncertain utility of our educational digestion in order to better allow hands to be hands and mouths to be mouths. A hand, instead of feeding the mouth with rice paper sweets decorated with chocolate poems as the head ordains, could engage in other activities with other body parts, or take up a new hobby like crochet.

The results of this reformation of procrastination, similar to the results of Luther’s Reformation, would create a new way for the bodily members to interact. The hands, after making some crocheted object (say: a scarf) could send that object to the neck to keep the neck warm. The warmed neck would then better serve the brain because the jugular veins and spine would be warm and toasty and comfortable, sending signals of contentment to the brain and head which, in turn, increases levels of dopamine and improves the overall health of the entire body. Essentially, by putting off taking up the rice papers to feed the mouth, as ordained by that unspecified head from before, the hands actually better serve the body. However, the head from some unknown region still maintains power over the body and even though the hand would prefer to crochet or mingle with other body parts, the head has issued command that the hand feed the mouth, and so the body aims to keep the hand in line with that programming.

During Luther’s Reformation, that Pope-ish head recognized Luther as some hand knitting without permission, and though the head sent signals to remove that hand it was too late: the hand had taught the feet to knit. (Ironically, this is because Pope Leo X was procrastinating reacting against Luther by focusing on helping make Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor). Suddenly, the entire order of being was called into question. No foot was supposed to knit, that was a job for hands only; and only then by permission of the head. The feet are, of course, the lay people and the knitting is biblical interpretation in Luther’s case. The hands were the clergy, and Luther was a rouge hand. I’m starting to over extend my metaphor again; I’ll explain, no, too much, I’ll sum up:

Luther’s Reformation challenged the established social order because he said people of all classes were capable of personally seeking God without having to ask permission of the church, go to confession, or even bother with the clergy. The clergy and other authorities did not like this, because they wanted to be ‘higher up’ than the peasantry and lay folk, and their perceived nearness to God and wealth were signifiers of their superiority. Luther’s reformation upset the social order by allowing communication to flow more freely between classes, but even today the general practice is that the rich rule the poor.

Luther’s Reformation is still applicable, and it is a nice foundation for my own Reformation of Procrastination, where procrastinators strive to put off doing assigned tasks by doing other socially beneficial tasks like community service, reading books, and writing essays designed to initiate a new movement in the world of procrastination (These essays should be disguised as informative essays on the Reformation or other educational things). I’m sure, by this point, I’ve reached the limit of readers’ attention (I know I’d be leery of an entry longer than a paragraph) now I’d like to finish by saying this: Strive to make your procrastination look useful.

The Importance of Being Earnest (An Essay On The Scarlet Letter)

Language is a referential process of creating meaning; each word operates within a series of structures including history and people, objects and ideas, places and things. These structures create a symbolic framework in which language functions, and this associative nature of language is why written texts are able to convey both a simple story of characters interacting within a setting, while at the same time conveying a subtext suggesting that the characters are more than a textual re-creation of real people. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, for example, is, in terms of text, a simple story of an affair between a woman and a minister, and how that affair and the subsequent love-child affects the mother, Hester Prynne, and the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Their story then conveys a lesson on the sin of adultery and pre-marital sex. However, the text tells more than a moral story, and conveys a message deeper than abstinence: through Arthur Dimmesdale, Hawthorne demonstrates the importance of living an honest life.

Hawthorne states clearly in The Scarlet Letter that one of the lessons to be learned from “The poor minister’s miserable experience” is “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”” (Hawthorne 199), and this statement is the very heart of Hawthorne’s demonstration of the value of honesty. “Be true” speaks clearly enough, and Hawthorne takes the idea further by commanding the reader to “show freely” any unpleasant traits. However, he demands this level of honesty not because doing so is a more accurate depiction of human insufficiency, but because the act of lying creates inner turmoil which consumes the liar and prevents him or her from moving on to a higher level of spiritual development. Dimmesdale, when read with ‘truth’ in mind, becomes a symbol for spiritual progression as shown by three features of his character: his position as a minister, his guilty torment, and his inability to ‘move on’ until he’s confessed his guilt.

Dimmesdale’s role as minister (a spiritual leader) acts as a way to show both the fear of losing reputation, and the spirit in general. He’s described by Hawthorne as “the man of ethereal attributes” (119), and is deemed by his fellow clergyman as “a miracle of holiness” (119), both of which indicate a being nearer spirit than flesh. This and the minister’s general sickness indicate a man distanced from the physical, and approaching more and more the spiritual world. Ironically, his spiritual excellence is largely the result of his burden of untruth and hypocrisy. A burden of torment he struggles with throughout the text in the form of his constant illness, and manifested in the false doctor Chillingworth. However, Dimmesdale’s torment begins even before Chillingworth appears as the doctor.

During Hester Pryne’s public denouncement on the scaffold Dimmesdale urges her to tell the congregation who the father of the child is, saying “Be not silent for any mistaken pity and tenderness for him…though he were to step down from a high place, and stand there beside thee, … better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life” (67). Here Dimmesdale both alludes to his own guilt, referring to the “high place” where he stood, and attempts to avoid personally revealing the secret by allowing the charge to come from Hester. This fails, however, because he must confess his wrongs with his own mouth, and since he would not do so at that moment he chooses to remain anonymous and guilty, and enters into a state of torment that prolongs his guilty life.

Here Chillingworth enters as a manifestation of guilt, tormenting Dimmesdale under the guise of a healer. Hawthorne writes that Chillingworth, after verifying the minister’s guilt, “became, thenceforth, not a spectator only, but a chief actor, in the poor minister’s interior world” (117), demonstrating through Chillingworth that a guilty conscious prohibits spiritual strength through torment, and shows the effects of the torment through Dimmesdale’s descent into a weaker and weaker state. A torment Dimmesdale can only escape from by first accepting his guilt privately, then publicly acknowledging his fault, and by doing this Dimmesdale is allowed to continue forward as spiritual emblem.

Hawthorne shows this through the moments when Dimmesdale is able to align his actions with the truth of his guilt, that is, when the minister is able to privately accept his guilt. One moment comes when the minister stands on the scaffold of shame late one night, and sees Hester and Pearl, their child, on their way home from a death bed. He calls them up to stand with him and holds their hands, showing the sleeping world his secret. Doing this “there came what seemed a tumultuous rush of new life… pouring like a torrent into his heart, and hurrying through all his veins, as if the mother and the child were communicating their vital warmth to his half-torpid system” (126). Here the warm, new life of truth invades Dimmesdale’s guilt ridden heart, suggesting that aligning himself with earnestness by confessing his guilt is essential for his step forward as a spiritual emblem.

Later, Dimmesdale himself bemoans his lack of honesty when he is again alone with Hester and says, “Happy are you, Hester, that wear the scarlet letter openly upon your bosom! Mine burns in secret! Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!” (153). Relief, in short, is what comes for those spirits who walk in truth. However, Dimmesdale’s confession to Hester and Pearl is, nonetheless, hidden the darkness of night and the forest, making it incomplete. The truth must be shown in the light of day, in front of the whole congregation in order to have value. For Hawthorne, the suitable stage for confession is the scaffold where Dimmesdale refused to stand, a place of both shame and elevation, which allows Dimmesdale to both reveal himself and rise to another level of spiritual well-being.

Chillingworth, the embodiment of poor Dimmesdale’s guilt, expresses the necessity of the minister’s confession on the scaffold, “‘Hadst thou sought the whole earth over,’ Said he, looking darkly at the clergyman, ‘there was no one place so secret, – no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me, – save on this very scaffold!’” (195). The scaffold is essential because the guilt derived less from the adulterous act, and more from Dimmesdale’s fear of standing with Hester in the first place and being an honest man. Had he done so, he would have been guilty of a sin, but would have walked in open truth where guilt has little power.

Reading The Scarlet Letter in this way is possible because the simple, direct language employed by Hawthorne to describe the anxiety of the minister’s experiences, and stating that the lesson from the ordeal is: “Be True!” (199). Hawthorne uses settings and images that suggest the difference between private confession hidden in darkness, and public confession exalted on a high place in the light. The characters are used to portray qualities of the minister’s guilt, and he is only able to progress spirituality by taking responsibility for his sin in broad daylight as made evident by Chillingworth’s inability to act when the minister ascends the scaffold. Through Dimmesdale’s story in The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne demonstrates that an honest life, though perhaps one of shame, is a better life, and shows the vital import of being earnest.

Citation: Murfin, Ross. The Scarlet Letter (Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Series). 2nd Ed . Bedford/St. Martins: New York, 2006. Print. Pages in text.

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