The Menaced Assassin. 1926.

The Menaced Assassin. 1926.
Rene Magritte

Monday, May 17, 2010

Like Mother Like Son: Masculinity and Melancholy in Topdog/Underdog

In the play Topdog/Underdog (2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner), Suzan Lori-Parks gives us a culminating moment in the lives of two African American brothers, Booth and Lincoln, who live together in a tiny apartment with no running water. In the introduction to her play, Parks writes “This is a play about family wounds and healing. Welcome to the family” (Parks 4).

When analyzing a work of fiction, there exists the interesting irony that one is not analyzing real events involving real people. The pressure of this irony is somewhat relieved in a theater when the fictional event takes place as a live production. On the stage, the dramatic work becomes a theatrical reality. At the least, the audience suspends believe to enter the world before them and interpret the stage life as real life. Such is the nature of drama (on the page) and theater (on the boards) as opposed to the novel, short story or memoir. Because drama is based on the direct interaction of characters through dialogue and any narrative in the play exists in that dialogue, then discourse analysis lends an appropriate and powerful hand for analyzing a dramatic work.

As Rena Fraden has pointed out, Susan Lori-Parks bears animosity toward critical analysis of her work. In one interview, Parks states, “I like my characters to do things. I’m less interested in meaning—whatever that word means, I’m not quite sure” (Fraden 43). Writers say many things about their works, but Parks seems consistent in her view of her own writing.
“I’ve told him a hundred times ‘George [George C. Wolfe, the director], there are no metaphor!’ I don’t know what a metaphor is! . . . There are two men in a room. Just take it for that. . . Slavery! Don’t even think about slavery” (Fraden 44). Of course Parks’ assertions leave little room for critical and theoretical analysis. But analysis must forge ahead. Therefore, the only choice left is for the critic to respectfully ignore her complaints, proceed and listen to Parks’ protests with a clue to the literature at hand.

Myra Tucker-Abramson states about Topdog/Underdog , “It is the rage of disempowerment and loss, that moves Booth to kill his brother, and in this way, the burden of responsibility for Lincoln’s death lies at least as much on the shoulders of systemic and economic racism as it does on Booth” (93). For me, this is the form of criticism that Parks is speaking against, and not necessarily all criticism. An appropriate theory would admit a myriad of ambiguities: “The masks black men wear are many and varied and might be understood as congruent with the difficult history of the agency or lack thereof of black masculine self-fashioning that is autonomous sand wholly self-interested. As we all know, history is always in question when black masculinity is in discussion” (Walcott 75).

Tucker-Abramson claims, “It is the rage of disempowerment and loss, that moves Booth to kill his brother. . . The burden of responsibility for Lincoln’s death lies at least as much on the shoulders of economic degradation and systemic racism as it does on Booth” (93). I believe the backbone of Topdog/Underdog will break under the burden of such a mission. However, I do agree with Tucker-Abramson’s claim that “definitions of masculinity” are at the heart of the struggle between the two brothers, especially Booths’ internal struggle. The face to face interaction of the brothers supports this notion.

Therefore, utilizing the post-structuralist concept of Erving Goffman’s interaction order, I will establish the family framework of the two brothers, Booth and Lincoln, as they attempt to live together. In the text of Topdog/Underdog, I will discover two major components of interaction order--normalcy and trust—and explain how the breakdown of normalcy and trust leads Booth to kill Lincoln. Also, I will show that Booth’s confusion about normal heterosexual behavior and the lack of reward in this mythical arena, along with the sexual myth’s correspondence to Booth’s shattered dream myth of making a lot of money at 3-card monte, leads Booth to kill Lincoln.
Although the cast list (Parks 7) names Lincoln the Topdog and Booth the underdog, ironically Booth is the first and last man standing in the play. “Perhaps the real crime of the confidence man is not that he takes money from his victims but that he robs us all of the belief that middle-class manners and appearance can be sustained only by middle-class people” (Goffman 29).

On a macro level in evaluating Topdog/Underdog, an easy trap for a critic is to convince himself or herself that the hegemonic power structures of white capitalism and dominant politics together with the terrible history of oppression of the black man in the Americas is why Booth kills Lincoln. In speaking of Topdog/Underdog, Myra Tucker-Abramson states “Parks shows the history of slavery to be directly linked to the economic slavery of black men in America, as is represented through the double signification of Lincoln” (87). . .“It is not predestination that has led to this tragedy but the confluence of economic degradation, systemic racism, and definitions of masculinity inscribed from without” (Tucker-Abramson 95). In the play there is no doubt that low wages or no wages, the shattered hopes of economic dreams that disappear, and the desperate attempts to live week to week bear on the psyches of Booth and Lincoln.

Erving Goffman says, “In sum, then, although it is certainly proper to point to the unequal distribution of rights in the interaction order (as in the case of the segregative use of the local communities of a city), and the unequal distribution of risk (as, say, across the age grades and between the sexes), the central theme remains of a traffic of use. . . And of course, to accept the conventions and norms as given (and to initiate one's action accordingly), is, in effect, to put trust in those about one. Not doing so, one could hardly get on with the business at hand; one could hardly have any- business at hand” (Goffman 6).

Any analysis of Topdog/Underdog should not ignore the disparate ways each man reacts to these conditions. What happens outside the door of their apartment certainly influences both men, “Either one accepts collective structures as organizing social life, or one admits to an infinite number of contingent circumstances which drive social action” (Rawls 148). If Erving Goffman used drama as a paradigm to examine every day social interaction, then it follows that the telescope of Goffman’s observation can be turned upon the stage play as if the interaction of the actors is a “real” social event.

Erving Goffman’s concept of interaction order is useful in looking at Parks’ play. “My concern over the years has been to promote acceptance of this face-to-face domain as an analytically viable one--a domain which might be titled, for want of any happy name, the interaction order--a domain whose preferred method of study is microanalysis” (Goffman 2). Goffman’s analysis includes normalcy and trust as codependent features for interaction order “Normality is based either on our perception of the regularity of events and
people’s behavior, its factual dimension, or on our classification of action as rule/norm following its normative dimension. Consequently, the predictability, reliability, and legibility of social order can be seen as synthetic criteria of normality. Trust, as an outcome of situational normality, reduces the complexity of a situation and increases the probability of cooperation” (Misztal 314).

Normalcy does not imply a peaceful existence nor an easy mode of living. Normalcy implies a routine or a pattern that continues day in and day out. The recent economic turmoil in the United States provides excellent examples of where normalcy was disrupted in the lives of many individuals and families. Take for example, any person who performs manual labor eight or ten hours a day, six days a week. Most factory workers or agricultural workers, men or women, who spend sixty hours a week making a low wage have reasonable claim to complain about their daily toil and lack of leisure time. But when they lose their job, as occurred to many millions of people recently, they long for the normalcy of their sixty hour work week.

Booth and Lincoln have developed their own brand of normal life together. Although their antagonism and arguing appear confrontational, these acts are part of the daily ritual that create a normalcy for the two men. An early example in the play shows the paradoxical nature of normalcy. At the opening of scene one, Booth is practicing the game of 3-card monte. Booth is so involved with the cards that he fails to hear Lincoln enter the apartment. Then, the stage directions read “Booth, sensing someone behind him, whirls around, pulling a gun from his pants. While the presence of Lincoln doesn’t surprise him, the Lincoln costume does.” (Parks 13). Of course, a gun pointed at your face is not normal for most of us. But this is the norm for Booth and Lincoln.

Another norm in the relationship between the brothers is that Booth steals items and shares them with his brother. This is not what most people would include in typical, rational normal behavior, but keep in mind that Goffman’s idea of normalcy deals with routine and repetitive acts. Shop lifting and stealing are ritual acts that Booth performs on a regular basis. Unlike his lack of grace at 3-card monte, Booth is a master at larceny. The stage directions at the beginning of scene two describe all the items Booth managed to hide on himself: a belt, the jackets and pants of two suits, two neckties, a bottle of whiskey, two folded shirts and a magazine. It resembles the Volkswagen commercial where twenty-five people climb out of a Beetle.

Booth’s ritual of petty theft and resulting gifts for his brother, immediately precede the weekly Friday custom of Lincoln bringing home his pay check in the form of cash. Friday evening is the integral normal event in this domestic disaster that Lincoln and Booth create for each other, especially in their imagined roles as ma and pa (Parks 30-1):
LINCOLN: Taaaaadaaaaaaa!
BOOTH: Lordamighty, Pa. I smells money!
(With a series of very elaborate moves, Lincoln brings the money over to Booth.)
BOOTH: Put it in my hands, Pa!
LINCOLN: Take yrself a good long whiff of them greenbacks.
BOOTH: Oh lordamighty. Ima faint, Pa! Get me muh med-sin!
(Lincoln quickly pours two large glasses of whiskey.)
LINCOLN: Don’t die on me, Ma!
BOOTH: Im fading fast, Pa!
LINCOLN: Thinka thuh children, Ma! Thinka thuh farm!
BOOTH: 1-2-3-
(Both men gulp down their drinks simultaneously.)
(Lots of laughing and slapping on the backs.)
Because the apartment belongs to Booth, he takes the money for rent and miscellaneous expenses and gives back a small portion to Lincoln as his allowance. This ritual with the Friday money is important for a couple of reasons. First, it shows the symbiotic nature of the relationship between Booth and Lincoln. The two brothers need each other to rent an apartment, to eat, to wear new clothes and to drink whiskey, but at the same time their relationship is parasitic. Booth wages guerilla warfare on traditional capitalistic institutions by shop lifting and stealing. Lincoln provides stability by working a regular job and receiving a regular pay check. Second, the money ritual occurs every Friday like clockwork. It is a normal, expected event for the brothers, especially for Booth.

When in scene five the normalcy is disturbed by Lincoln losing his job, the stress and breakdown of trust is not immediate. Booth calls Lincoln a free man. Lincoln talks about cards and shows Booth the ins and outs of 3-card monte. But the spell is broken. The normalcy disappears, and with that loss goes Booth’s trust for Lincoln. Booth needs the make-believe role as ma. Booth requires from Lincoln a stable environment based on Lincoln’s weekly income, even though the apartment is too small for the men. “Social interaction can be identified narrowly as that which uniquely transpires in social situations, that is, environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another's response presence” (Goffman 2).

Every family experiences power struggles of some type. When each person in a family
solely defines him or herself based on family relationships and those relationships disintegrate, then no frame for personal identity exists. Booth is a petty thief. An excellent thief. Other than larceny, his imaginary power results from his fictitious stories about sex, money, and card skills to his brother Lincoln. Now that Lincoln( in the next scene) is making money again at 3-card monte, Lincoln doesn’t need Booth. But Booth needs Lincoln. Booth lack s economic power. He lacks a labor skill amenable to capitalism. Booth lacks a woman and so lacks his masculinity. “Foucault undertakes to reconceive power altogether, not on the analogy of an object that can be possessed and passed around but rather on the analogy of an event. Power is something that happens. It is a kind of tension that emerges when people have different goals or perspectives or conflicting projects” (McWhorter 42).

Scene six breaks any lingering remnants of normalcy between the brothers. This is a Thursday night, but Lincoln enters with his usual Friday night “Taaadaaa!” (Parks 86). The apartment is silent. Ma (Booth) is not there to respond. The stage directions say about Lincoln, “Hes high on liquor. . . . He pulls an enormous wad of money from his pocket” (Parks 86). Lincoln played three-car monte and he won a lot of cash.
During an interview with Rena Fraden, Suzan Lori-Parks said:

“Why does everyone think that white artists make art and black artists make statements? Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me about form? . . . It’s insulting when people say my plays are about what it’s about to be black—as if that’s all we think about, as if our life is about that. My life is not about race. It’s about being alive” (Fraden 41).
If Booth cannot live a life without his brother Lincoln, then events lead Booth to kill his brother.

Near the end of the play Topdog/Underdog, Lincoln shows Booth how to play 3-card monte. The only money Booth has is the inheritance his mother gave him when she left home. The inheritance is supposedly five hundred dollars, which is wrapped tightly in a nylon stocking. Booth never opened the money gift. Booth wagers the inheritance in the final card game with his brother Lincoln and loses his inheritance. A short time later, Booth confesses to Lincoln that he has killed his somewhat girlfriend Grace. “Grace. I popped her. Grace” (112). Lincoln realizes Booth is not his normal self and tries to give back the stocking inheritance. Booth will not accept the money. When begins to tear open the nylon stocking, all normality for Booth disappears.

“Almost all acts of violence are mitigated by the violator proffering an ex-change of some kind, however undesired by the victim, and of course the violator presupposes the maintenance of speech norms and the conventions for gesturing threat to accomplish this. So, too, in the case of unnegotiated violence. Assassins must rely on and profit from conventional traffic flow and conventional understanding regarding normal appearances if they are to get into a position to attack their victim and escape from the scene of the crime” (Goffman 5).

At the end of Topdog/Underdog on page 114, Booth places his gun “into the left side of Lincolns neck” (Parks). Unlike the historical President Lincoln, this Lincoln knows he is about to do and has the opportunity to say to his brother “Dont” (Parks). Then the stages directions read “Booth shoots Lincoln. Lincoln slumps forward, falling out of his chair and onto the floor. He lies there dead. Booth paces back and forth, like a panther in a cage, holding his gun” (Parks).

Booth ends the play as he began the play. He attempts to play 3-card monte, but he realizes he has no skill and the only family he knew, Lincoln, is dead. Booth ends the play with these stage directions:
(He bends to pick up the money-filled stocking. Then he just crumples. As he sits beside Lincolns body, the money-stocking falls away. Booth holds Lincolns body, hugging him close. He sobs.)


Works Cited

Balfour, Lawrie. "A Most Disagreeable Mirror": Race Consciousness as Double Consciousness. Political Theory, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Jun., 1998), pp. 346-369.

Claviez, Thomas. The Southern Demiurge at Work: Modernism, Literary Theory
and William Faulkner. Journal of Modern Literature, Volume 32, Number 4, Summer 2009, pp. 22-33.

Colebrook, Claire. Certeau and Foucault: Tactics andStrategic Essentialism. The South Atlantic Quarterly, Spring, Duke University Press.

Fraden, Rena. A Mid-Life Critical Crisis: Chiastic Criticism and Encounters With the Theatrical Work of Suzan-Lori Parks. “Journal of American Drama and Theater” 17, No 3 (Fall 2005)

Goffman, Erving. The Interaction Order. American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Feb., 1983), pp. 1-17 .
---The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, reprint Penguin Books, 1990.

Kearon, Tony. “We Have Never Been Liberal—Bourgeois Identity and the Criminal(ized)Other” Social Justice. Vol. 32 No. 1. 2005.

Misztal, Barbara A. Normality and Trust in Goffman’s Theory of Interaction Order. Sociological
Theory 19:3 November 2001 American Sociological Association. New York

Morse, J. Mitchell. Race, Class, and Metaphor. College English, Vol. 35, No. 5 (Feb., 1974), pp. 545-565.

McWhorter, Ladelle. Sex, Race, and Biopower: A Foucauldian Genealogy. Hypatia vol. 19, no. 3 (Summer 2004)

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 2002.

Rawls, Anne Warfield. Language, Self and Social Order: A Reformulation of Goffman and Sacks. “Human Studies” 12: 147-172. 1989.
--"Race" as an Interaction Order Phenomenon: W.E.B. Du Bois's "Double Consciousness" Thesis Revisited Sociological Theory, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Jul., 2000), pp. 241-274 American Sociological Association Human Studies 12: 147-172, 1989.

Tucker-Abramson, Myra. “The Money Shot: Economies of Sex, Guns and Language in Topdog/Underdog. Modern Drama, 50:1 (Spring 2007) pp.77-97.

Vallas, Steven. "Goffman, Foucault, and the Theory of Ritual" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, Montreal Convention Center, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Aug 11, 2006. 2009-05-24

Walcott, Rinaldo. Reconstructing Manhood; or, The Drag of Black Masculinity
Small Axe, Number 28 (Volume 13, Number 1), March 2009, pp. 75-89

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair

During and after reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, I couldn’t help thinking of alternate titles that I invented for the novel. One is The Struggle or simply Struggle. How about The Grindstone? Maybe Despair Under the Elms, but that would mix and stretch references a little much. Perhaps Despair. Another title could be Against All Odds. Or maybe No Matter How Hard You Try. Then there are the obvious titles like Capitalism Versus Socialism, The Capitalist Slave, Slave Wages, and The Human Slaughter House.

Despite the polemic of the last thirty pages of the novel, this is an excellent, tragic story. My tendency, like a nervous laugh, is to make light of the death and despair by creating satirical titles for the book. A Working Man, A Politician and a Policeman Walk Into a Bar. Can’t Get No Satisfaction. A travel brochure title like Enjoy the Windy City. But I create these nervous laugh titles because The Jungle is full of death, despair, injustice, misogyny, racism and class oppression. I don’t mean to make light of the dire circumstances surrounding Jurgis. Instead, the satire is my way of wading through the ocean of pain these people deal with while working for the animal slaughter industry in Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Group Therapy and Equus

To this point in the class, we have quickly surveyed many schools of literary theory. I have no doubt that we could spend one semester talking about each style of thinking. But this class is a quick look at theory, so that's what you get.
For me, in me, this run and gun is good and bad. Good because I am now aware that Formalism and Post Structuralism exist as schools of theory. If I choose I can further study the nuances of Derrida and Foucault. The bad is this type of class creates, at least in myself, a schizophrenic mind set when using theory on literature. I know just enough to be dangerous. There are many competing theories running around in my brain. Sometimes I mix this one with that one. I have a friend who took her Ph.D. only on one aspect of Freud. She wrote a 450 page document about dependence and codependence. Who am I to use Freud in analyzing literature?
Take that mindset and apply it to a group effort of seven schizophrenic literary theory dilettantes and you have a party or a fight. Maybe a little of both. No matter. The value of quick immersion and potential long term study of theory out weighs the immediate frustration.

Equus by Peter Shaffer: The Differance between Pagan and Christian Sacrifice?

Equus is a play about a boy, Alan Strang, who blinds six horses with a hoof pick. Equus is a play about a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart, who must normalize the boy back into society. But Dysart discovers that his own pagan outlook is deficient next to Alan’s ecstatic experience as self created God-incarnate. Despite the horror of Alan’s cruelty, Dysart sees that Alan’s religious megalomania might be the correct path to a fruitful life. However, Dysart’s job is to push Alan back on the accepted path that society mandates. During the process, Dysart decides to retire from the path and reclaim something of his individual self lost in service to culture. Such is the dichotomy between the individual and society in Equus.
But this story of a boy, Alan, versus a society also runs congruent with the drama of the clash of paganism and Christianity. Much of the critical work on Equus discusses Nietzsche’s Dionysian and Apollonian undercurrent. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche criticizes Euripides for preferring rational thinking over base human behavior when Euripides chooses “to separate this primitive and all-powerful Dionysian element from tragedy, and to build up a new and purified form of tragedy on the basis of a non-Dionysian art, morality, and conception of things” (Nietzsche 47). Most critical literary thinkers prefer this Greek myth dichotomy regarding Equus. Anna Despotopoulou’s article From Dionysus to Gorgon: Peter Shaffer’s Revision of Classical Myth and Theory is a typical response to the play and builds on Nietzsche’s work. But these theories ignore the obvious Christian references and the Christian and pagan battle.
Yet, The Greek myth framework is a useful point of departure in discussing Equus. The stage is literally set as a pagan altar. At the first point in the play, the stage is a polytheistic altar owned and operated by the psychiatrist-priest Dysart. There are no crosses. There are no Jesus figures. The stage is bare and receptive to ritual ceremony and blood sacrifice. Early in the play, Dysart in his dream is a “chief priest in Homeric Greece . . . wearing a wide gold mask, all noble and bearded” (Shaffer 17). At least in his mind, Dysart’s psychiatric office (the stage) is a place where “the sacrifice is a herd of children: about 500 boys and girls” (Shaffer 17). And into this stark domain, Dysart, in the opening lines of the play, manifests for our pleasure, Alan and the horse Nugget under a bright light. The bright light, like Bentham’s and Foucault’s scrutiny, press upon Alan to reveal the truth of himself. The stage is set.
The first line of “The Setting” describes the stage as containing “a square of wood set on a circle of wood” (Shaffer 3). This description is reminiscent of the idiom of forcing a square peg to fit into a round hole. Of course, if you chisel away at the square peg until the diagonal is less than the diameter, then the square peg will fit into the round hole. That might require losing a large amount of the character of the square peg. If Alan is the zealous square peg then the round hole is Dysart’s, and society’s, normalized conventions. Dysart must shape Alan to fit.
But Alan cannot easily be reduced. Instead, over the course of the play, Alan’s world overpowers Dysart’s altar. Little by little, as Dysart probes Alan’s psyche, Alan’s pseudo-Christian world consumes Dysart’s pagan arena.
Leonard Mustazza directly confronts the Greek myth structure of most critical thinkers: “The fact is that only a small part of Alan’s worship can be characterized as “Dionysian” (orgiastic and ecstatic). Instead, the vast majority of Alan’s “myth” is based upon Judeo-Christian theology and rite” (Mustazza 175). Nietzsche’s argument is valid as far as it goes. In tragedy, if Dionysus and Apollo are not equal enemies, the story is weak and uninteresting. However, Equus is a powerful play because the clash of the Christian and the pagan is in addition to the fight between base desire and intellect. Once each character’s mask is dropped or torn away, then these conflicts are revealed to the audience.
Masks help individuals hide their basic instincts from society. If the individual can’t find an appropriate mask, then culture will fashion a mask for them. In Equus, the only person not wearing a mask is Alan. Alan’s parents, Frank and Dora, hide behind the masks of Christianity and atheism or the roles of husband and wife. Dysart’s masks are psychiatry and a boring marriage. Dysart’s job is to fashion Alan’s mask and to reintroduce the masked boy into the masque of society. Even the horse actors wear masks, but theirs is of a different nature. In the description of “The Horses” at the beginning of the play, Shaffer writes about the horse masks, “The actors’ own heads are seen beneath them: no attempt should be made to conceal them” (Shaffer 5). It is alright, within the play, for the horse/human to exist. Alan desires to become one with the horse god. His rituals and ceremonies help him to reveal his human nature and celebrate his horse nature.
No matter the religious nature, whether Christian or pagan, ceremonies and rituals provide a liminal state between the mundane and the spiritual. Alan used ritual and self flogging to transcend the everyday. Dysart used the ritual of psychiatry to help patients explore their feelings, but the ritual never allowed Dysart to transcend his everyday life.
In Dysart’s psychiatric world, one useful liminal state is dreams. If we are condemned for our actions in our dreams, then all of us are guilty of transgressions. Dreams redirect the pressures of life so that each of us will not act out our often violent, sexually deviant and anarchic fantasies. Dysart doesn’t act on his dream of sacrificing boys and girls. He sees the dream as an indicator of his subconscious feelings about his job as a psychiatrist.
But Alan isn’t dreaming. He is experiencing. His thoughts manifest in real time action. Once Dysart understands this, he questions his own dreams and his own reality. “Dysart . . .once in touch with the boy’s authentic spirituality, comes face to face with his own artificial existence and envies the creativity that the boy’s worship stimulates” (Despotopoulou 86).
Finally, Dysart can fully appreciate the mystical experience of Alan. At the beginning of the play, when Dysart is looking back in retrospect during his first monologue, he uses words like “sweaty,” “nudging,” “kissing,” “embraces,” to describe the manner of Alan and the horse Nugget. In awe and respect, Dysart won’t name the boy, but calls him “he.” Dysart says of himself that he (himself) is “all reined up in old language and old assumptions . . . because my educated, average head is being held at the wrong angle” (Shaffer 10).
The languageused by Dysart and by Alan describe an ecstatic experience. In scenes 20 and 21 of Act one (Shaffer 65-72), Alan describes how he sheds his clothes to ride the horses. He places a stick in his mouth that he calls the “Manbit” and hides the stick in the “Ark of the Manbit.” He gives the horse a lump of sugar as “His Last Supper.” Alan calls the horse “Equus the Godslave.” Finally, in an ecstatic trance, Alan chants over and over, “Ha, ha, ha, ha.” This language is reminiscent of St. Teresa of Avila’s description of her own religious experience. “These sublime favours leave the soul so desirous of fully enjoying Him Who has bestowed them, that life becomes a painful, though delicious torture, and death is ardently longed for” (St. Teresa 128). “Equus embodies Alan’s religious and sexual desire as well as his religious and sexual frustration. He blinds the horses in an enraged and pathetic attempt to avert the accusing eye of Equus, his true lover and God” (Quigley 22). Alan’s ecstasy I s“agape love” or that sentiment of joy in the ecstasy of communion and union with the divine that manifest as a physical sexual experience but carries none of the base connotations of human intercourse. The Virgin Mary’s experience with the Holy Spirit and the resulting birth of Jesus represent the apex of the agape experience.
How is the audience meant to react to the play? Certainly the blinding of the horses is atrocious, but the total consumption by God of the devotee is an experience wished for by many religious zealots of different religions. They are indeed called zealots because their actions seem abnormal and incomprehensible. Dysart recognizes this fact and at the same time comprehends the banality of his own life. Sigmund Freud’s friend and confidant, C. G. Jung, wrote, “I . . . shall content myself with the fact that a natural function which has existed from the beginning, like the religious function, cannot be disposed of with rationalistic and so-called enlightened criticism” (Jung 38).

Friday, March 5, 2010

Deconstructing Mr. Whiskers

One way for me to look at deconstruction is to use the mathematical concepts of calculus and set theory. Calculus developed as a technique to find ever smaller and smaller increments, to try and understand the infinitesimal difference between one point in time and the next point in time. Set theory looks at the relationships between groups.

Let’s say I am thinking about my pet cat, Mr. Whiskers. The trick is to explain Mr. Whiskers to you, either in writing or in speech. Using set theory, I can quickly bypass the scientific taxonomy that starts at the top with “life” and “domain” and “kingdom.” You assume my cat is alive and a member of the animal kingdom. Without talking about specifics, we’ve moved from the large group of all living things, to a subgroup of animals and then to the set of cats. That is the language history that you and I share, so we don’t have to get involved in those introductory descriptions.

But if you truly want to know Mr. Whiskers, then I must relate to you smaller and smaller differences (sets) between my cat and other cats. If Mr. Whiskers is purebred, I could tell you he is Himalayan. An image would come to your mind. But he is neither purebred nor Himalayan. Then I might say he is a “he” and he is black with white paws. That might be enough for you. Or you might want to know whether he is a kitten or a cat. You might want to know whether he is an indoor cat, outdoor cat or both. Does Mr. Whiskers eat wet food or dry? Has he been neutered?

Even with this continued parsing, you will never know Mr. Whiskers the way I know him. Of course, some of this could be avoided if I simply carried a picture of Mr. Whiskers in my wallet. But just as importantly, when you meet Mr. Whiskers, you and I will know him in a different way. Mr. Whiskers and I enjoy the baggage of history. I know about the spilled milk and the cat claws digging into the sofa legs. There is the woman that sold me Mr. Whiskers.

The physical form I call “Mr. Whiskers” can only be estimated by the language concept of “Mr. Whiskers.” Deconstruction tells me that no matter how many differences I discover using language, no matter how many sets and subsets of smaller distinctions and discriminations I create, I can only approximate Mr. Whiskers.

In Introductory Deconstruction, Rivkin and Ryan state, “One important implication of this insight is that if all things are produced as identities by their differences from other things, then a complete determination of identity would require an endless inventory of relations to other terms in a potentially infinite network of differences. Truth, as a result, will always be incomplete” (258). Practically, we have to stop somewhere when imparting information. We each know there is a point where finer distinctions are not necessary in the course of human communication. Each speech or written event benefits by stopping or continuing depending on the purpose and desired outcome.

For me, poetry is the most elegant form of deconstruction, although poetry existed long before the concept of deconstruction as a theory existed. If I start a poem this way:

More than two but less than three
transportation thoroughfares separated
in a sparse forest of primary color

you would think me clumsy, but your subconscious might recognize my clumsiness as the popular pattern by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

Frost doesn’t tell us whether the road is dirt or paved or rock or cobblestone. Frost doesn’t tell us if the forest is sparse or dense. He deconstructed an image to this precise stopping point so we could reconstruct and own it ourselves, each individually in our own clumsy way.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the Ecstacy of Ski Flying

This week, someone asked in class, “Why do this? Why do theory?” This is an excellent question on so many levels.

The infamous and erudite coffee table tome on the subject, Vincent B. Leitch’s The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, delivers a wonderful “Introduction to Theory and Criticism” that includes reasons about the philosophical fuss over why do theory and criticism at all. Leitch says, “What theory demonstrates . . . is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called common sense” (1). Even the desire for “no theory” implies a theory. If I understand that whatever ideology I personally bring to a discussion might be called the Ramseyism Theory of Literature, then in the broadest sense I can appreciate, even tolerate, that each of us employs our own brand of theory. But theories have developed into systems with rules for membership in the same way that I gravitate to people who have a similar hobby and world view as mine.

Like minds attract each other. If I look at different schools of theories as groups of people who see the world in a similar way, then it is easier for me to understand why and how these schools form. An analogy resides in sports. I enjoy rock climbing. Some people think I am crazy. On the other hand, I don’t understand why curling is an Olympic sport. Curlers(?) would think me intolerant. However, I can appreciate that curling fanatics and rock climbers prefer to congregate with their coconspirators. The formation of a school of theory is tied closely with the personal world view of the congregation members. But there is a definite practical reason why schools of theory might form.

We are literally suffocating in information. The amount of written and spoken word available to us is overwhelming. Whether or not all of this information is “literature” is for another discussion. But, we need systems to help us manage this body of literature.

Most of us take for granted the systems called fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, poetry, novel, gothic novel, romance novel, short story, drama and so on. Theorists replace these everyday practical consumer driven brands with semi-scientific methods for diagnosing literature. Theorists aim their microscopes at the words of artists, sometimes out of appreciation, but some times out of an almost fetish desire to own the objects of their perusal. This is not a negation, but simply another way of saying that like minds attract each other.

Theory is an academic activity. When I read Robert Ludlum, I don’t use semiotics or post colonial questions to enter the Jason Bourne stories. I read to enjoy and to escape. But I can appreciate where and when theory might be useful. Again from Leitch:

Theory raises and answers questions about a broad array of fundamental issues, some old and some new, pertaining to reading and interpretive strategies, literature and culture, tradition and nationalism, genre and gender, meaning and paraphrase, originality and intertextuality, authorial intention and the unconscious, literary education and social hegemony, standard language and heteroglossia, poetics and rhetoric, representation and truth, and so on (28).

For me, Leitch gives the most compelling and interesting reason for theory as:

In addition, theory opens literary and cultural studies to neighboring disciplines and numerous national traditions. And it reinvigorates the field not only by reexamining the canonical list of great works and the tool kit of basic concepts and methods but also by recasting the received interpretations of old texts and frameworks and by revealing interesting new zones of meaning and possibilities for future critical inquiry (28).

But can theory go too far?

Werner Herzog is the enigmatic and complicated director/artist of over fifty films, including such commercial films as Woyzeck and Rescue Dawn and the documentary Grizzly Man, which chronicles the passion that lead Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend to their death in Alaska. In a 2007 video interview titled On the Ecstasy of Ski-Flying: Werner Herzog in Conversation with Karen Beckman and sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia’s Slought Foundation, Herzog says the following:

. . . efforts by academia to over analyze, vivisect, poetry, literature, cinema. . . When you start to create a climate in some sort, in some niches of academia of over theorizing things and just trying to only find nothing else but structures, as if the structures and the core structure of social behavior, structures inherit in history, structures inherit in psychology, to impose it, to enforce it on literature, for example, it doesn’t do any good to any piece of literature. It does not do good anything to movies (sic). Just try to get away from it. That is my advice.

Because the real wonder about cinema gets lost. The great love for poetry can be trampled, this flame that is somewhere there can be trampled out and extinguished easily. That is a danger. Literature, films and music can give you consolation. The post structuralist will never accept a term like “consolation,” and yet it is there. . . .
I thought about my wife who grew up in Siberia in a dictatorship. Many books were forbidden. And she had a fifteen year old hand copied, a secret copy of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. The entire text secretly (copied) in long hand. And the school girls would pass it around. That is what we need. That is real reception of literature. That is real agitation.
The post structuralist will stamp them out. We should be very very cautious.

Freud and Lacan aid my deeper appreciation for Peter Shaffer’s Equus. I enjoy thinking about semiotics, structures and the under lying symbols lurking beneath the text of a work of literature like Moby Dick, Hamlet or Light in August. Approaching a novel or play with a postcolonial or feminist satchel of tools forces me to engage with the literature. But I never hope to vivisect, as Herzog says, a novel or film to the point where nothing enjoyable remains. When my analytical process is finished, I want my next casual reading of that text to be richer and better informed because of the analysis and in spite of the analysis. I must take off the theory glasses and feel Herzog’s “consolation and agitation” that the text can deliver.

Go forth and love your literature.

Sunday, February 21, 2010