Archive for September, 2010

Victorian Lit Essay

Or: Two Hours and This To Tell For It?

I was not going to post this because it was a rush job (per the assignment) and I can’t really say I am exceedingly happy with it.  It is okay, but it does suffer from the same faults that many of my essays do.  I feel like I am standing in the archery range, releasing arrows one after another and coming within a few inches of the bull’s-eye but always just ever so slightly missing the mark.  I feel like my essays of the last year have been plagued with shy attempts to articulate my thoughts and occasionally succeeding and often coming just short.  Still, if I don’t try I will never improve.   It occurs to me that I certainly got the better end of the deal in that I never have such problems when writing narrative/fiction (though I will leave this open for any of my readers to debate).

(Oh dear, I just realized I submitted this  to Hube with a rather silly grammatical error.  I should probably recognize the insignificance of such and be absolved of my shame, but I find such far from simple.)

The essay:

As soon as Henry Tilney can utter these words at the end of the twenty-fourth chapter in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey “Consult your understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. . .” Catherine is altered irrevocably, and, as Austen succinctly summarizes, “The visions of romance were over” (Austen, Northanger Abbey, XXIV, XXV). And thus Austen, who was living on a nebulous line demarcating the cusp of the Victorian era while Romanticism was slipping away, announces the end of that framework that defined Romanticism. In Northanger Abbey, Austen takes advantage of the Victorian’s acute, self-conscious, and explicit awareness of themselves and makes a microcosm of that shift from Romanticism to Victorianism, embodying it in the life of Catherine Morland.

Catherine, throughout Northanger Abbey, embodies some of the most obvious of those characteristics that define Romanticism. Austen constantly reminds us of Catherine’s brilliant imagination and emotive cognitive processes. The ubiquitous reminders of her fascination with those Gothic novels that so define her is also a driving motif throughout the work. Moreover, Catherine has a persistent belief in the innate goodness of individuals—or, at least, she has a faith in the total goodness of those good individuals, and the total depravity of those evil individuals. As we see, one of the results of her paradigm awakening or disillusionment towards the end of the novel was the realization that, while in Romanticism “such as were not as spotless as an angel, might have the dispositions of a fiend,” in the Victorian era, in the real world, is instead “a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.” In the character of Catherine, those Romantic traits are displayed in an extreme. The most blatant, of course, is her obsession with the Gothic, the sublime, which drives the plot of much of the second volume of the novel.

The plot of Northanger Abbey through the twenty-third chapter builds up the character of Catherine and enables us to see what she only sees in hindsight, that she arrives at Northanger Abbey “craving to be frightened.” Before she has arrived at the Tilney residence, Catherine attempts to imagine it more than simply an abbey just as she attempts to integrate something beyond life into the character of General Tilney. This constitutes the essential flaw in the character as well as an essential distinction between Romanticism and Victorianism.

In a manner analogical to that with which the classical Romantics attempted to find meaning and truth in nature, the pre-awakening Catherine attempts to find the meaning in things, places, and people that she is unable and unwilling to concede are nothing more than things, places, and people. There is a place called Northanger Abbey. There is a man known as General Tilney. Yet, to Catherine, if there is nothing more, they have absolutely no meaning. And so, from her Romantic framework developed through prolific perusal of Romantic and Gothic literature, Catherine integrates the places, things, and people that she knows with standards that are not in any conformity to the real world. Her “sense of the probable,” as Henry Tilney calls it, is skewed to such a degree that to overlay these Gothic stereotypes onto reality in order to discover or create some meaning is fully sensible.

The reversal in chapter twenty-four is utterly simplistic and yet strikingly profound within the context of the plot around the well-developed character of Catherine. Catherine finally makes her way into Mrs. Tilney’s bedroom, the bedroom that must reveal the nefarious truths about Mrs. Tilney’s death that must be more than simply a sudden, fatal illness. And, of course, Catherine finds a bed, and a wardrobe, and chairs, and, in the end, exactly what one would expect to find in a bedroom: perfectly mundane innocence and simplicity. It is a testament to Austen’s narrative skill that the seemingly self-evident discovery that a bedroom, in fact, is a bedroom, can be such a dramatic upheaval for her characters. The recognition of the “common sense” (and her hitherto lack thereof) that immediately overcomes Catherine begins the paradigm shift away from Catherine’s Romanticism to an almost skeptical Victorianism which rejects far-fetched integrations. In the stead of the Romantic risk of absurdity by going to such extremes as Catherine has done in order to find meaning in daily experiences and interactions, the Victorian Catherine rejects the search for such integrations by denying the necessity that a house be any more than a house or a man be any more than merely a man. There need not be any sublimity. In other words, Catherine’s revelation exemplifies the Victorian era’s reaction to the Romantic’s over-wide realm of the probable by limiting the meaningful to only the extant and eliding the excessive, and external integrated meaning.

“The visions of romance were over. Catherine was completely awakened.” She is suddenly made aware of the “extravagance of her late fancies,” “[t]he liberty which her imagination had dared to take. . . ,” and “the absurdity of her curiosity and fears” (Ibid. XXV.) In this, Austen sums up the dramatic shift from the Romantic mindset into that of the Victorian era, from the over-inclusive to the skeptical. But there is nothing to fear in this shift, and Austen offers this comfort for Catherine and her readers: “Her [Catherine’s] mind made up on these several points, and her resolution formed, of always judging and acting in future with the greatest good sense, she had nothing to do but to forgive herself and be happier than ever. . .” (Ibid. XXV).1

1. Dr. Hubele, please know that your temporal restrictions have resulted in this inchoate creation which you have (no doubt) perspicaciously perused. I would have liked to discuss the idea that Henry’s acutely aware recognition of his own framework is a key component of Victorianism, but your restrictions have cruelly cut off the head of these thoughts before they had time to integrate and fructify. I will end this superfluous footnote by mutilating John Milton:

‘Doth Hube exact hard labor, time denied?’

I fearf’ly ask. But Prudence, to prevent

That murmur, soon replies: ‘Hube doth not need

Either your work or the whole class’s: who

Simply write their essays, they serve him best.’

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Atoms on the Mind

Ever since my childhood, I have often thought that certain oddities of our universe were fascinating.  One such oddity is the incomprehensible range of temperature.  That we exist only a few hundred degrees from absolute zero while the pinnacle of heat is so infinitely high above us seems somewhat strange.  Mayhap it lies vaguely somewhere near that nebulous distinction between the real and my fanciful wishfulness, or perhaps it is merely my innate desire to summon meaning out of nature, but, regardless, this has always seemed somewhat miraculous and (though only in an indefinite way) significant.
 
 

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A Few Thoughts on “Paradise Lost”

Or:

Taking Advantage of the Early Dismissal of my Aesthetics Class to Organize Convoluted Thoughts While Awaiting the Beginning of my 11 o’clock Speech Class

I.  The beginning books of John Milton’s Paradise Lost contain a paradox that has plagued every reader since it was published: that of Satan’s heroism.  When I first perused those pages, I was consciously intent on avoiding this admiration of the devil that everyone seemed to feel; I don’t think that I succeeded.  However, as the months passed after reading it for the first time, I began to notice something in the work as a whole.  The first two books display Satan in such a manner that there is no way in which you can not at the least understand if not experience the admiration for the devil.  The first half of Paradise Lost, the heroic epic, is constructed with Satan at the center.  He is dynamic and fascinating.  Hell is organic and even beautiful in its terror and awfulness.  While I might have tried to stubbornly resist the attraction of the devil, I was fully conscious of the work’s shape that encouraged if not necessitated that attraction.

And then, around the fifth book, this all changes.  The epic gives way to a quieter genre and Satan’s appeal dwindles into revulsion and, perhaps, even pity.  There is left nothing grand in him whatsoever.  But it would be a mistake to view this transformation as a change in the character or characterization of Satan.  Instead, we are given another point of view and we see that there was never anything admirable or adoreable in that infernal prince at all.  But this moment of revelation is not simply a moment of recognition of something in the work; it is a moment of terrible recognition of the sin that has been accompanying us throughout the first half of the work.  I realized that all that attracted me to Satan was that selfsame stuff that stirs up the pride and lust and wrath in myself every moment of every day.  It is that selfsame nature that I am in a constant struggle with for the vitality of my soul.  The recognition of one’s misplaced attraction to Satan is the recognition of the sinful human nature.  It is the recognition that I let that sinful nature rule me for the first few books of the work.  Paradise Lost is not only able to convict you of your sinful nature, it draws you into that conviction, makes you a part of the work in a manner that is scarcely accomplished through any other work so that by the time that Eve takes the fruit from the tree and gives it to Adam, you have already fallen and from this fallen state can only beg them not to partake of your guilt.  In a way, the Fall is reversed in Paradise Lost.  It is only after the reader has fallen and recognized his allegorical nakedness that we watch Adam and Eve give into the devil.  It is only after we have recognized the evil in man that Adam and Eve partake of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

I have read extensively, but I can think of no other work that accomplishes a profound recognition as effectively as this other than the Bible.  The feelings that were aroused in me upon this recognition in Paradise Lost were of the same stuff as that horrific guilt that is present in me every time I recognize that my mouth, my sins, and my sinful heart all stand with that crowd crying “Crucify Him!”.

II.  I think one of the greatest aspects of both the Bible and Paradise Lost is that, of course, neither leave you be in this state of guilt and shame.  The consideration of this shall have to be for some other time though.

III.  If there is a more vital and powerful purpose to Story, I am hard-pressed to think of it.  The allegorical potency that allows for this recognition is at the heart of what Story ought to be.  I wonder whether I could ever accomplish this.

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An out-laying of intentions

Why do I write?  What do I have to say?  I am tired and emptied, and the following result is of little worth.  It is poorly written and poorly conceived, yet it is necessary.  I shall let it be.

Today came accompanied with an interesting existential crisis that I fear will not be resolved for some time.  In one sense, I should be glad that the crisis will not be resolved as unless  it is resolved to my satisfaction, my life is at risk.  And so, in due response to the presentation of this epiphany of self-doubt and self-reflection, I have undertaken to prevent the further procrastination of the person I ought to be.  This newborn creation of mine—this blog—is the projection of at least one facet of myself that I believe ought to be seen, though not for altruistic purposes.   I intend to display my inchoate self, my self on a journey, my self on an intellectual and religious sojourn towards some goal which is only dimly perceived from this vantage in time.  And so I shall lay out my intentions.

I.  My Faith

I am a Christian and I am a sinner.  With this catechism knowledge in mind, I am entering a new stage in the desperate war against my sinful self.  I am complacent and easily satisfied with my corrupt nature and I fear that my complacency will remain unopposed until the bitter end unless with God’s help I consciously determine to oppose it.  I intend to reach the point that I am at odds with this complacency and reject it at every rearing of its Hydraic head.  My vices are basilisks that keep me frozen still with inaction when I should be fleeing as Joseph fled.  I intend to make it my constant prayer that I this contentment is dissolved.

I am under no misconceptions as to my own ability to accomplish this goal.  I can do nothing without Christ who I pray strengthen me.  It is also true, though, that unless I determine not to make myself prey to my faults, I will never escape them.  I am a Christian, blessed with the Holy Spirit of God who works to sanctify my daily.  This work ought to bear fruit in my life, and as of yet, I fear that my branches are bare and withered, fragile and ready to snap before the lightest breeze.  My life ought to be a manifested mirror of Christ and it is not.  I bear the name of Chris, follower of Christ, by birth.  I bear the name of Christian by God’s grace.  I live up to neither of these.

II.  My work

I am a writer.  I am a poor one, I confess.  I am a sparse one, at that.   Since my arrival at school, my writing has declined to such a degree that I can only shamefully categorize myself as a writer.  I claim the title with the hidden fear that someone will inquire too deeply into my work and find that I am only a self-aggrandized facade.  I despise this about myself.  My imagination and my thoughts and even my school have suffered so greatly as a result of my laziness and disregard for the craft that I have been blessed to have even a small natural inclination towards.  Today, I submitted an essay for the Honors College.  Since 12:56 pm, I have been writhing in regret, self-loathing, sadness, and discontentment.  The essay I submitted was all true, all legitimate.  And yet, while prosaically discussing the imagination and its vitality to a Christian life, the essay was devoid of any imagination.  It was devoid of any emotion, depth, honesty, or any other aspect that would make it my own.  I am ashamed of it.  In this craft I have undertaken, I never want to be ashamed of something I produce.  I am determined to place myself against the whetstone and sharpen my craft until I can produce the stories that I ought to produce to glorify God.

III.  My consciousness

I am insipid.  I am entirely obsessed with externals.  I have put on the guise of  an intellectual when I ought to be garbed in the motley jester’s cape and crown.  I am the Fool, and utterly foolish.  My every action is carefully thought out so as to give the best impression to others.  Oh, I have become skilled and portraying the histrionic self that I want others to see.  It shames me, but it is so.  I am merely the painted throne, demanding homage.  I am the stretched skin demanding respect with no body, no mind worthy of note.  My thoughts have dwindled from creative contrivances that would pick apart the universe and rebuild it in an evening.  I used to entertain myself with such thoughts in my mind to give me pause years later.  But now, I am a fool.  I have no more intellectual prowess than a  brick.  My thoughts are bland and derivative.  I am tired of this state.  It is high time that this changed and I returned to the use of my mind for what it was intended.

I beg pardon for sounding conceited.  I am, certainly, for  this is one of my greatest weaknesses, but I only intend to delineate these faults so as to have a record for myself.  You, my hypothetical and vainly imagined audience, are not the purpose of this thing.

IV.  My relationships

Though intimately related to all of the presequent matters, this is problematic enough for myself that I think it is worth noting for my own needs.  I am a terrific egoist of the Roark and Taggart type.  This egoism is in constant tension with my Christian life (though not always in contradiction with, I believe).  While the philosophical egoism itself might not be the cause of my pride and self-absorption, it is certainly of relevance.  I espouse a system of belief based in the sacrifice of a god for his people as the tangible acting out of his love for his revolting people, and yet I continue to be one of the most self-centered and apathetic individuals I have ever met.  My friendships are so often a matter of convenience for myself.  I love many of them, but I take them for granted until such a time as I am desirous of the balm that friendship offers such usually self-sufficient people as myself.  I intend to end this folly.

V.  My hair

I think I need a haircut.  I think it is perfectly legitimate to force an allegory.  Consider: my long un-sheared hair as the physical manifestation of the inner weakness that has been growing inside myself for the past years, the clipping of aforementioned hair as the image of my efforts to destroy these cancerous traits.

Of course, one must never forget that hair will always grow back.

I shall not wax grotesque any further.   I shall let you be.  I will leave by quoting, as so many frustrated Christians have done before me, John Donne and that magnificent fourteenth sonnet that so easily speaks for me, when I have not the heart  to speak.

“Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

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