A Myspace Exchange

I should seriously consider deleting my myspace profile. Too frequently I encounter “bulletin” messages that make me sad for our country. And occasionally I choose to respond, which quickly eats away at my already non-existent free time. But if I’m going to waste time with something like this, at least I can get a blog post out if it ;-)

Here is the text of a recent exchange with someone I knew in grade school, in which I don’t even bother discussing the complete unreliability of the Bible:

—————– Bulletin Message —————–
From: XXXX
Date: Oct 9, 2008 3:24 PM

I was stunned to hear these words from Barack Hussein Obama . . .

“we are no longer a Christian nation; we are now a nation of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, . . .

As with so many other statements I’ve heard him (and his wife) make, I never thought I’d see the day that I’d hear something like that from a presidential candidate in this nation. To think our forefathers fought and died for the right for our nation to be a Christian nation—and to have this man say with pride that we are no longer that. How far this nation has come from what our founding fathers intended it to be.

And just to know that so many people are blinded by who he truly is, is completely scary!

I don’t believe any Christian could possibly vote for Barack Obama with a clear conscious. He is in favor of abortion, even giving doctors permission to kill living babies that suffer from a botched abortion. And he doesn’t believe this a Christian nation anymore.

I just ask everyone to commit to praying about this matter for the next 19 days until the election. Truly commit to praying for God’s guidance in the way you vote. And when election time comes, only vote how God leads you.

Love you all!

—————– Original Message —————–
From: Chris
Date: Oct 9, 2008 11:20 PM

It makes me sad to see you spouting this ignorance. I will pray that you are able to see past the manipulative lies spread in the name of Christianity today and open your heart to Jesus’ real message: universal compassion, which has no room for hate and judgment.

—————– Original Message —————–
From: XXXX
Date: Oct 10, 2008 12:53 PM

i don’t base my thought on “manipulative lies”, i have studied the Bible for myself. you’re right, we are not to judge, except for righteous judgement. we are to stand for what Jesus would stand for. and gas prices and the economy are definately not something He really cares about. one day when we stand at the judgement, He won’t ask if we our economy was good. He’ll wonder why we let our country kill babies that He created.

—————– Original Message —————–
From: Chris
Date: Oct 11, 2008 12:30 PM

In an effort to keep this focused on the original topic I had responded to, I must simply point out that the men who founded this nation recognized the supreme importance of freedom of religion. After all, the very reason for so many European immigrants at the time was that they had not been free to practice their religion of choice. So it is disturbing that an American would say that “the scariest thing Obama has said” is that non-Christians are just as welcome here as Christians.

When I referred to manipulative lies, I was referring to the many ways in which corrupt politicians and rich religious leaders work together to sway the votes of well-meaning Christians by distracting them with hot-button issues such as abortion. The simple truth of the matter, and something that most evangelical church leaders will not break ranks to admit, is that the outcome of this election will have very little, if any, impact on abortion laws. So regardless of whether or not you’re willing to recognize the fact that our stone-age, religious-right inspired “abstinence only” sex education is a major factor in the reason for a vast number of unwanted pregnancies that end in abortion (most of which would happen regardless of whether or not abortion was outlawed), abortion is being brought up only to change the votes of those who are concerned about doing the right thing but don’t realize that they’re being manipulated.

If Jesus were really to see the state of our nation today, he would be much more appalled at how we treat our poor. Rather than loving our neighbor, we live in a nation that caters to the greed and decadence of the rich. Our government has for a long time been in the hands of the super-wealthy, who can afford to manipulate the politicians and church leaders, so that no good can be accomplished without capitulating to some extent to the wishes of our corporate overlords. As a result, we turn a blind eye to much of the suffering in our country and around the world, and instead of investing in the health and well-being of everyone, the majority of our population toils away to generate outrageous profits for the wealthy few.

Topics like abortion and homosexuality are brought up as red herrings to convince otherwise good people to vote for those who will ensure that the exploitation continues. It is not very expensive to stir up unfounded fears among Christians that their faith is under attack in order to sway the vote. It worked in 2000 and 2004, and the unbridled greed was permitted to continue while we continued to neglect the well-being of the general public.

If we put the same money into educating our public and providing proper healthcare to those who are sick that we put into deposing a leader who was not in any way connected to the atrocious attacks we suffered in 2001, our nation would be strong, and vibrant, and capable of being the beacon of hope to the rest of the world that we once were.

It’s not about gas prices and the economy. It’s about whether or not our nation is working to love our neighbors, in and out of our own borders. The driving force of conservative politics is the protection of those who refuse to do so. When it is convenient, they call upon Christians to help them stay in power, appealing to them with empty promises that are tossed aside once the ballots are cast.

Racism

I recently came across this little gem on Myspace.com, the repository of wisdom that it is:

You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you, so why are the ghettos the most dangerous places to live?

You have the United Negro College Fund.

You have Martin Luther King Day.

You have Black History Month.

You have Cesar Chavez Day.

You have Yom Hashoah

You have Ma’uled AlNabi

You have the NAACP.

You have BET.

If we had WET(white entertainment television) …we’d be racist.

If we had a White Pride Day… you would call us racist.

If we had white history month… we’d be racist.

If we had an organization for only whites to “advance” our lives… we’d be racist.

If we had a college fund that only gave white students scholarships…you know we’d be racist.

In the Million Man March, you believed that you were marching for your race and rights. If we marched for our race and rights…you would call us racist.

Did you know that some high school students decided to make a club for only the white students because the other ethnicities had them… they all got sent to court for being racist but the African American, Latino, and Asian clubs were not even questioned.

You are proud to be black, brown, yellow and orange, and you’re not afraid to announce it. But when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.

I am white.

I am proud.

But, we get called racist for it…

Why is it that only whites can be racists?

Now watch, I’ll be a racist for posting this…

So what?

I am anything but racist.

People just get mad because they know it’s the truth…

I would think that most reasonable people could very easily see this ignorance for what it is, but the scary truth of the matter is that there are far too many people in the US these days who buy into this sort of thinking. There are two different issues at hand in this statement or declaration: the issue of culture and ethnicity, and the issue of power and privilege.

Where culture and ethnicity are concerned, it seems that the fatal mistake the author has made is that of equating race with ethnicity/cultural heritage. As a white male who grew up in the rural Midwest, I certainly understand what it’s like to have no concept of cultural heritage. I once held this same view, that if the Asian Americans and the Mexican Americans (etc) could have groups at school, then why couldn’t we have a club for White kids? The fact is that White people do have various groups to celebrate their heritage; as a matter of fact, my hometown still celebrates Swedish Heritage Days. But in my experience, whenever my White friends have expressed pride about being White, it had nothing to do with culture and everything to do with not being racially “other”. As far as I can tell, it’s been fairly rare that any of my White friends have much or any sense of connection to their ethnic roots. Of course, most of them have been quick to claim either their Italian or Irish blood, but wouldn’t be able to tell you much/anything about those cultures that isn’t common knowledge. I would think that one of the reasons for having clubs that celebrate ethnic backgrounds would be to help preserve and show appreciation for cultural traditions and background. Many White Americans probably have grown up with very little cultural heritage or tradition that is not a part of the larger dominant American culture. People whose cultural roots aren’t as well-represented (or represented at all) by mainstream culture are forced to make special efforts to preserve their traditions and find others who share their culture. The message in this statement above seems to come from a place of fearing or feeling threatened by efforts to cherish or preserve culture that is not yet a part of the mainstream, as well as an underlying suspicion that White Americans don’t have much culture to celebrate. I’m sure that’s much truer for some White Americans than for others. As for myself, I feel that I have a wealth of cultural heritage that was bestowed on me by my family of origin, my upbringing, and the place where I was raised. However, unlike many groups who have heritage clubs, my ethnic background hasn’t really had a whole lot to do with my cultural heritage, and my cultural heritage is very well-represented in mainstream culture. Why would I need a club?

The issue of power and privilege is a little different. Like I said before, it would seem that most reasonable people would have no problem recognizing that our system affords many advantages to both those who are economically privileged and to people whose own cultural background is best aligned with mainstream culture. I still find it surprising when I meet young White upper-middle class males who are very resentful at the idea that any privileges or opportunities could be given to those who have been underprivileged in some way. The part that baffles me most is that these young men can be so blind to just how much they have had available to them that is simply not available to so many other people, or would require a tremendous deal of effort for other people to attain. I grew up in a single-parent home below the poverty line with five siblings, and I believe that the fact that I grew up in a middle-class community with a decent public school system has had a very serious impact on my ability to complete a bachelor’s degree and begin work on a master’s degree. Many people do not have that privilege, and I firmly believe that efforts should be made to remove barriers that prevent many underprivileged students from pursuing an education, be those barriers economic or cultural.

Finally, the post included an interesting selection of religious holidays. The author seems to have forgotten that “we” have Christmas and Easter, among other things. California may have Cesar Chavez day, but in my native Illinois we had Casimir Pulaski day, to honor a Polish-American figure from the Revolutionary War. The author also seems to ignore the fact that the vast majority of television already caters specifically to White middle class viewers. It wouldn’t make much sense to create a “WET” when most channels already constitute White entertainment television. All told, it is the author’s inability or unwillingness to grasp the differences between race, ethnicity, and culture that are at issue here. While it may not constitute blatant racism, it certainly does indicate a very unfortunate lack of sensitivity to and understanding of the issues at hand.

Kill whitey! ;-)

Becoming a Blogger

Coming of age in the late nineties and early twenty-first century, blogs have played an increasingly important role in my development as a writer and my experiences as a student of writing. A couple of significant changes in the American cultural landscape in the second half of the twentieth century were in the process of influencing English departments across the nation as I was growing up. One of those changes took place in the form of rapid and widespread popularity of television, and eventually video games, as preferred pastimes in American households. The concept of reading for pleasure, especially in the latter portion of the century, seemed more foreign with each passing year, particularly among the nation’s youth. The other important change came by way of the proliferation of creative writing programs in universities and colleges around the country. In the first half of the century, many published authors held worked during the day as journalists and completed their works of fiction or poetry in their evenings off. By the end of the century, when I was preparing to begin my college education, writing programs existed in academic institutions all around the country. So while the literacy of the rest of the country was in decline, English departments dealt with the internal struggles about the roles and functions of creative writing programs and where they fit in the department as a whole.

Around the same time that I began to discover my desire to write, however, another cultural change was in the works. The Internet was beginning to take off as an important communication tool that would revolutionize media around the world as this SEO Agency had confirmed already. As I found my way into an English program in a small, private Midwestern university to begin my trials and tribulations as an aspiring writer, developments were set in motion on the Internet that would eventually provide me, along with many other tech-savvy writers of all stripes, with new types of opportunities to find places in the world for our writing.

How the Internet Begat the Blogosphere

In the last year or two, traditional media outlets have begun to catch on to the fact that the blogosphere has a surprising level of influence in American political discourse. Some people argue that blogs have made it easier for average citizens to engage in the public dialogue, and is therefore a more democratic forum than traditional media outlets, most of which are now owned by large corporate interests. Others have argued that opening up the national dialogue to anyone with an Internet connection allows people to make claims and put forth arguments without the same set of journalistic standards or accountability that are meant to preserve the integrity of traditional media. But of greater concern from a literary standpoint are the effects that electronic media and the blogosphere could have on literary culture. In order to get a better perspective on that, it might be helpful to have an understanding of how blogging developed as a medium.

Some of the earliest bloggers, though not necessarily known as such at the time, began to create online journals in the early- to mid-nineties to publish thoughts for anyone with a dial-up connection to see. These students posted about a variety of topics, usually including day-to-day life events along with ideas and discussions about computers and the nonstop growth and development of Internet technologies. In the mid- to late-nineties, there were websites online that served solely to allow users with little or no technical expertise to create websites of their own. By the early 2000s, other websites had emerged that allowed users to create updateable online journals. The subject matter, maturity level, and regularity of new posts on these journals varied widely. While many of these journals were maintained by web developers and political enthusiasts, a rising contingent of teenage girls were writing posts about their crushes on boys (or other girls) and the teachers they hated most. The term ‘blog’ was eventually coined as short for ‘web log’. As greater numbers of bloggers posted with more regularity, and more new bloggers started posting, the popularity of blogs began to infiltrate the general public. As of September 2007, the blog search engine Technorati tracked more than 112 million blogs (wpengine review/about).

On the political landscape, the blogosphere poses a strong direct challenge to traditional media formats. Politically-minded bloggers examine, compare, and critique every aspect of the stories that appear in traditional media, including tone, delivery, assumptions, facts, sources, newsworthiness, and so on. The egalitarian nature of the blogosphere allows most bloggers to remain independent and relatively anonymous, which often affords them the freedom to be quite brutal in their assessments of people in the news and of the traditional media outlets that cover the stories. Opening up the national political dialogue to anyone around the country with an Internet connection is a wonderful way to revitalize the notion that everyone should have an equal voice on matters that affects us all. Yet while anyone can set up a blog and start posting, the sheer number of blogs in existence today makes it unlikely that any writer will gain much notoriety without a certain level of skill as a political pundit. The necessary skills could perhaps vary by taste, so that a writer might be able to gain readers due to their ability to analyze news insightfully, or with certain levels of humor or vitriol. Readers could potentially even gain popularity by simply writing about sensational topics such as sex scandals, as one Washington, D.C. staffer did. Whatever a writer’s draw might be, the simple fact remains that anyone can blog, but not every blog will attract readers.

That same principle holds true when it comes to blogs outside of the political realm, and particularly when it comes to literary writing. The increasing ease with which many writers can publish their work for the world to see has had a tremendous effect on politics in the United States in recent years, but it also shows promise for affecting literary culture. It is never easy to accurately predict what might be on the horizon for technology or literature. However, the widespread popularity of blogs, along with social networking sites such as Myspace.com and Facebook.com, as well as video sharing sites such as Youtube, it seems clear that mixed media will continue to become increasingly diverse and accessible, and therefore continue to grow in popularity. These sites and features are not nearly popular enough to draw the youth in the United States completely away from MTV and video games, but instead they are supplementing those forms of entertainment and providing new opportunities for young people to demonstrate creativity and self-expression. While Myspace profiles and instant messaging accounts are not likely to launch every student, or even many students, into careers as bestselling authors, the popularity of blogs is a refreshing sign that hope remains for literacy in America. And for those of us who are interested in writing, blogs can provide a place to experiment with narrative craft outside of an academic system that can, at times, be somewhat stifling.

My Education and My Growth as a Writer

One of the more pervasive bits of lore about creative writing, that it cannot be taught, was impressed upon me early by the classrooms of my childhood. The idea was never stated explicitly, but rather brought to life by the sheer rarity of efforts to teach us to write, especially as a means of artistic expression. In all of the years of my education up to high school, the only memorable experiences I had with writing instruction took place in the fifth grade. My teacher, Mr. Scott, assigned two writing projects that year: the first a report on one of the fifty states, the second a short story. We were given very little direction or guidance for these projects. The state report was ayear-long project for which we were instructed to aim for fifty pages of material, and the short story assignment was spread out over the course of a week or two, during which we were expected to produce two to three pages of fiction. While the lack of direction left me with no idea of how to approach the state report, I dove in to the fiction assignment eagerly and ended up with a five page story that I hoped would eventually become a series of book for teenagers. I turned in thirty-five pages of heavily plagiarized material for the state report, which Mr. Scott sternly informed me was “not an A paper.” Both he and my classmates, though, enjoyed the short story I’d written.

I learned a few lessons from those first experiences with writing. To begin with, I had been officially indoctrinated with the belief that writing is a solitary activity that cannot be taught or imparted. The thirty-five pages of information I gathered about Montana was a testament to my lacking creativity and originality. My failure to do anything more with the five-page science fiction story after submitting it to class, in spite of all of my daydreams about the many possible directions I could take it, was further evidence that even if I could be creative, I was too lazy to follow through on inspiration. Other than using a primitive word processing program on my family’s first PC to write sporadic journal entries, I took an extended hiatus from writing.

My next experience with writing came when I finally reached high school. My freshman English teacher was a recent college graduate who played in a punk rock band. He had us free-write in a journal every week and encouraged us to be inventive and playful. We read interesting fiction that wasn’t as old as most of what we’d read in other literature classes up to that point. We were encouraged to consider not just the ideas in the work, but also how those ideas were presented. We were encouraged to experiment and look for ways to create pieces of our own that attempted to do what we thought the original works were doing. After reading dystopian novels such as Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Brave New World, I wrote a two-page short story about a future in which humans all live in pods that are buried in the ground whose only interactions take place via the Internet. They decide to break out. I immensely enjoyed the writing experience and idolized the teacher. That was the first time that I thought that maybe I, too, would like to be a teacher. At the time, I was preparing to leave for a math and science academy, so I thought I would probably end up teaching math.

My experiences at the math and science academy quickly eliminated my interests in math and science. I continued to read dystopian literature and became very interested in changing the world. I found some of my greatest pleasures in writing extensive notes, emails, and letters to a girl I wanted to date. Manipulating language to develop ideas, construct arguments, and imagine possibilities became something of an addiction for me, particularly when I articulated thoughts on society and philosophy. At one point, I began a set of memoirs in which I hoped to justify my reasons for constantly skipping classes, but I didn’t manage to finish them before being asked to leave the academy. I returned to my home high school and began to use the Internet as a place to share my writing with others. The greatest excitement came when others read and commented on my work, providing me with the necessary stimulation to continue moving forward. I enjoyed the challenge of working with ideas and language that I though, for the first time, that maybe I wanted to be a writer.

I approached my college career much the way I had the fifty-page state report: with little guidance and without asking for help. I had no reason to know that creative writing programs existed at the college level, and I believed that anyone who wanted to write had to major in English. As far as I could tell, English majors who didn’t teach high school all went on to earn a master’s or PhD, in order to teach at the college level. It seemed quite reasonable that if a writer couldn’t simply write and get published with little effort, that writer would have to live and work as either a teacher or a journalist while waiting to be discovered. I spent my first two years as an undergrad at an expensive private university that offered only one creative writing course, and I was surprised to learn that they offered that one. I paid thousands for courses that would’ve cost hundreds at a community college, and I decided by the time I finished my second year that I had no interest at all in teaching high school.

During my freshman year at that university, I started work on a piece of fiction that I didn’t know how to handle. I meant for it to be the beginning of a short story, but I had neither anyone to consult with questions about narrative craft, nor did I have any idea what questions I should ask if I did. A close friend was studying creative writing at a university near my hometown, and his enthusiasm for the program was enough to convince me to transfer. The writing program there was still in its early stages of becoming a distinct entity within the English department. I wasn’t very clear on what the distinctions were in the writing program, so I chose the “professional” writing option over the “creative” writing, because the former sounded like code for “the option for those who would like to have a career.” Not long into the program, I did manage to enroll in a fiction workshop. When I finished my first short story for that class, I knew without a doubt that I would have to switch to the creative writing option.

As an undergraduate creative writing student, I did not gain a strong understanding of what my education was supposed to be doing for me. I took a heavy load of courses outside of my major, and most of my credits within the creative writing major were earned taking literature courses with English professors. In my entire undergraduate career, I took barely more than a handful of creative writing workshop courses. Those workshops seemed to lack context, both in terms of my education as a whole and in terms of what it meant to study creative writing. We read and discussed published writing and student work, but spent little or no time at all discussing theory, or career goals, or what it means to be a writer. But for all the drawbacks of a writing program experiencing growing pains and creative writing workshops that perpetuate a certain level of creative writing lore, writing and discussing my work with others provided me with the push I needed to get involved in writing. Unfortunately, since graduation, I have found that I struggle to write fiction without a workshop deadline to meet.

What Blogging Has Taught Me about Writing

Around the same time that I transferred into a creative writing program, I created a new website in order to post some of my essays. These were pieces that I had posted online in the past with “build-your-own” websites, but this time I went so far as to go through the process of getting domain name ideas, buying my own domain name and designing a page from scratch with help from the same friend who’d convinced me to study creative writing. In addition to each of us having sites of our own, we also created a collaborative site to post our poetry and fiction. We tinkered with our websites as a hobby in our free time, until one day when he emailed me to say that we had to do this new thing called “blogging.” He created small inline frames for each of our sites to serve as a place to inform our viewers of changes, additions, and updates. I started slowly on my personal blog, simply writing to let people know if and when I posted a new story or essay, or to share some bit of personal news. But on more than one occasion, I found myself sitting down to write a brief post about some trivial matter and then getting caught up in the narrative, until the blog entry ended up much longer and more entertaining than I could have anticipated.I was beginning to learn that “every occasion for writing is an occasion for writing.”

By the time I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing, my blog had grown to be the primary feature on my website. The site also features more than forty essays (of varying lengths and quality) on numerous topics, more than twenty poems, and over a dozen short stories. The main attraction to my site, according to the website statistics tracking, is the blog on the front page. The blog is also where I often turn to share bits of writing for the general public that I wouldn’t otherwise be likely to write about in an essay or piece of fiction. And while I do not treat my blog as a personal diary, however, as I have found over time that there is a certain personal style of writing that lends itself to the medium. In Keywords in Creative Writing, Bishop and Starkey mention that creative nonfiction is rapidly becoming the new chic genre. As a blogger and a student of writing, I find that I often turn to my blog to write simply for the sake of writing. As long as blogs continue to allow that freedom, and as long as writing studies departments continue to struggle through their growing pains, blogs show a great potential to develop as an important new genre in English literacy.

Beliefs

The issues of religion and politics are very touchy. People tend to hold their beliefs very dearly, regardless of the extent to which those beliefs shape their day-to-day lives. Many people are strong believers and live their lives accordingly. Many more cling to the fundamentals of one belief system or other that show little or no effects in their lifestyles. I, for one, have swayed back and forth between the two a great deal in my life. I have experienced a great deal of emotional turmoil at times, and have seen myself become rabid and brutal in defense of ideas and values that have very little bearing on my life or choices. But as I have progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve made a little headway in better living by the principles I claim to value.

One of the principles I’ve struggled with has been tolerance. My predisposition is to look at things from an all-or-nothing standpoint, and tolerance has not eluded that unfriendly gaze. I let myself think for a while that I must let everyone believe whatever ridiculous nonsense they choose to, because that’s their “right.” I later swung to the other extreme and thought that I must take (and give) great pains to “help” others part with their mistaken beliefs, even as my own were constantly growing and changing. I hoped that by unloading my beliefs on passersby, I might be able to nail down my belief system definitively and move on to other things, like living life. I didn’t necessarily need all of the gruesome details, but I wanted desperately to know the basic gist of the big picture. I felt compelled to lash out at all of the unsatisfactory attempts to explain things from society’s religions, especially atheism and popular forms of monotheism. I resented their audacious claims about the world beyond time and space. At the same time, though, I fumbled around desperately for some story about that world that I could buy.

Lately I’ve come to terms with the idea that I will never be certain about what exists beyond this world. My beliefs and understanding about this world and beyond will continue to grow and change as long as I continue to live and breathe. When I accept that, I learn to practice tolerance because the beliefs I ridicule today may be the ones I embrace tomorrow. But I am still much less likely to accept some beliefs than others. As I have explored different ideas, I have learned that some are simply too far-fetched. If these ideas were harmless, then tolerance would be in order. But in many cases, false beliefs do more harm than good. When that’s the case, I should look for opportunities to discuss the ideas and propose alternatives. Tolerance means respecting that each person is going to believe whatever he or she wants to believe. I cannot change what another person believes, but I can exchange ideas and perspectives so that we can each come to new understandings. Everyone is free to believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean that simply believing a thing makes it right.

Having said all of that, I am going to lay out some of my fundamental beliefs. The realm of possibilities in my belief system remains wide, but my experience in life thus far has provided me with a basic framework for understanding the world and my place in it. One of my core beliefs is that the driving force in the Universe leads us toward connectedness, integration, and depth and broadness of experience. Our job is to try to live life as fully as possible, seeking joy and avoiding suffering, and to help others do the same. These ideas aren’t new or original in any sense, and the spirit of these ideas has appeared in some form in countless traditions throughout the history of human thought. But in addition to our constant misinterpretation and misunderstanding of each other, I believe we supplement and distort very basic ideas about life in ways that disconnect us from each other, limit ourselves, inhibit joy and increase suffering.

I call the life force in the Universe love. Many other people call it many other things. A few common names for it in Christianity might include Grace, Holy Spirit, or Jesus Christ. Some would simply call it compassion. I believe that the Universe as a whole is simply an expression of it. Love has no opposite because love is all there is. In our exercise of free will and choice, we often attempt to suppress or subvert love. Our efforts are simply misguided or perverted forms of love. Love is a river and sometimes we try to swim upstream because we think that’s where we’ll find love. But we’re already drowning in it. When we fail to serve as conduits for love, we cause suffering, which creates more opportunities for compassion. We make lots of mistakes. We hurt each other in horrible, shameful ways. People are left to experience dereliction, degradation, isolation, and painful, undignified deaths. But the drive to empathize with each other remains even when we think we don’t want it. Love will prevail because life is nothing more than love experiencing itself in an infinite variety of forms. Consciousness is the sleight-of-hand that convinces us that we are separate from the rest of the Universe, thus allowing us to experience a broader range of suffering and joy in life. We are drops in a river that have convinced ourselves we are separate and distinct from the rest of the flowing water. The spirit that animates us is the same spirit that animates all matter.

In this framework, the closest thing to sinfulness is self-centeredness. This is basically indulgence in the illusion of separateness and failure to participate fully in the joy, suffering, and compassion of life. This is not in opposition to love; it instead is the failure to use all of the love available. Self-centeredness leads people to stumble around blindly when they could move forward into life and embrace and experience love, integration, and connectedness. In addition to limiting our ability to experience a full range of what life and love offer, self-centeredness shuts out the compassion of others, and short-changes people who would otherwise receive love through us. We must constantly work to expand our capacity to give and receive love and compassion. In doing so, we both help others avoid suffering and help them expand their own capacities for love and compassion.

This understanding of life and our role in it doesn’t easily translate into our modern society, which so highly values individualism. But while I believe that individuality is an illusion created by consciousness, it’s still the basis for our interaction with the world. The practice of compassion seeks to break down the artificial distinctions that we create between each other, but corporate capitalism and the American dream rely heavily on them. Our economy is driven by self-interest at the cost of the well-being of others, and failures to exercise love and compassion are greatly rewarded with material wealth. Yet as our world continues to experience problems of incredible magnitude, we continue to have further opportunities to exercise and practice love and compassion with each other. Even if our species faces great calamity, people will continue to have chances to love and care for each other until we draw our final breaths. I’m up to the challenge. Are you?

Humbert Humbert: The Great Liar

Lolita is a narrative delivered in such a way that it not only allows for, but essentially demands speculation about its reliability. Nabokov, in keeping with his style, constructs a narrator whose accounts of events are given an obvious slant. For the reader, it becomes clear that we can generally rely on the factual details of the story, but we should not give much credence to the assessments or interpretations provided by the narrator. Nabokov’s ability to so effectively create a convincingly deluded character is among the stronger points of this novel. Throughout the novel, Humbert pays lip-service to traditional analyses of his situation, unconvincingly pretending to agree with socially acceptable moral assessments of his behavior. In the same breath, he lays out explanations for himself. Humbert makes a concerted effort to thoroughly describe the intricate details of the situations that provide him with irresistible opportunities to indulge in his unusual fantasies. This level of detail and his rather transparent efforts to seem repentant or remorseful, or at least as though he can even comprehend the idea that his behavior is inexcusable, would perhaps indicate that the opposite is true: that he does not regret his behavior at all, that the must unsettling thing about the entire affair, for him, was that it was not able to last forever. But while it might seem that way, that Humbert was a sociopath with no remorse and no conscience, I suspect that he is being deceptive. In this case, he is not deceiving the readers, but himself.

Nabokov’s narrative style is very misleading in its straightforwardness. His narrator, Humbert, seems at first glance to simply tell us the story with nothing to hide. He seems nearly credible in the way that he discloses apprehension about telling certain things, relating certain details of his story. Yet he continues, pushes forward anyway so that the reader will have the full benefit of the whole truth of the story. In certain places in the text, he makes a special point of calling the readers attention to the level of detail, explaining that recalling that level of detail is difficult work, but if the readers hope to properly understand his dilemma and the drama the story, then we must engage in those very details which are capable of making some people quite uncomfortable. On this surface level, Humbert seems vaguely repentant. He expresses his agreement with notions of common decency and social acceptability when he refers to his own cunning as insanity and to his own acts as being depraved and disturbing.

It should not take long for any reader to realize that Nabokov’s narrative should not be taken at face value. Humbert’s tone varies in significant places in the text, his frighteningly attentive detail clearly quite serious in places, while in other places he includes obligatory stock-phrasing to indicate that the remorse he expresses is not entirely sincere. We soon come to realize through this transparency that Humbert knows that his relationship with Lolita is unacceptable. He is sure to point out his awareness that his conduct, by any reasonable social conventions, would be considered disturbing, if not outright disgusting. While he refers to his desires and impulses as insanity, he also describes in detail the ways that he premeditates situations so that he might fully take advantage of them.

This is where the final layer of deception lies. Humbert is a man who has, from a very young age, had a particular hang-up. He doubtlessly recognized very early in life that his desires and fantasies were different than those of most people, and that he derived an inordinate amount of pleasure from dealing with women much younger than would be socially permissible for him. While his mock shame at being so afflicted is easily seen through as a sham, on closer inspection he would seem to harbor a certain level of genuine shame about the matter. His construction of the narrative is deliberately deceptive, an effort to convince the reader that he feels guilty for behaving in such a way, but beneath the cold calculation that permits him to take advantage of the forbidden fruits, there lies a genuine remorse at what he has become. The existence of the nymphet becomes his only saving grace, the very thing that gives him an opportunity to escape his loneliness and disconnection from the world. Lolita is quite different from anyone else in that she is among the only people who can relate to Humbert. He may be able to get avoid sincere belief that his desires are wrong in any way, but he can never escape the fact that his desires set him apart from mainstream society. In that respect, he will remain painfully aware of the fact that he is different and separate from the people around him, and the people who could potentially accept him for those flaws would certainly be quite limited. To make matters worse, those very few people who might be willing to accept Humbert, knowing about his illicit desires, could never condone the fact that he expresses no intention to refrain from acting on those impulses. The nymphet, however, is unique in her ability not only to accept Humbert for his desires, but also to accept him even when, or especially because, he is willing to seek satisfaction, or not refuse it should it be delivered.

Quilty, or others who share Humbert’s affliction, could arguably be people who are capable of relating to Humbert. Contrarily, men who share such an affliction would likely be quite helpless to each other, particularly because of the fact that they would in competition with one another for a decidedly limited resource, just as Quilty and Humbert are for Lolita’s affections. Humbert might have been able to hold on to a modicum of denial about the impropriety of his desires because he was able to pin their origin on something in his childhood, something that had been done to him through no fault of his own that he had no power to undo. It would be impossible to commiserate with Quilty because it would tear the very thin fabric of Humbert’s denial, a denial so weak that it is barely convincing to the reader. And yet he is forced into the same category as Quilty; they are trapped by the same desperate need: Lolita. Humbert’s fatal mistake with respect to that competition was simply that he had Lolita first. Of all the things that Humbert’s nymphets might be, devoted would never be one of them.

Losing Lolita to Quilty also demonstrated another important distinction between the two men. Humbert’s pedophile-nymphet relationship with Lolita marked her initiation into that world, or an end to her childhood. Her relationship with Quilty, even if he had been the only man that she had ever been crazy about, could still only be a follow-up to the time that she spent with Humbert. But when Humbert visits her, in her new life after Quilty, he realizes that no sentimental ties to the time that she spent with him remain. She had been crazy about Quilty, shameless as he was, and Humbert had only been a substitute. While Lolita herself had only worked her way into Humbert’s heart as a stand-in for his Annabel Leigh, she had quickly become more than that to him. Where losing her did not put an end to his illicit attractions, it did put an end to his pitiful hope that a relationship with someone to whom he was so attracted would have any favorable outcome.

Finally, seeing Lolita in her new domestic life, a mother-to-be, Humbert is subject to a resurgence of his irrational dreams of possessing her and spending his life with her. Such a relationship could have never worked out. Beyond the fact that she was simply not interested in Humbert, through the course of their affair she had come to view him as pitiful. He took interest in her originally because she fit the model that he had for perfection—his Annabel Lee—so well that she recreated it. His fixation on her evolved from superficial sexual attraction to a deep emotional dependence. Initially hooked on the fleeting crush that brought her close to him, he eventually developed an addiction to the cruel indifference with which she treated him. Her indifference, though, was more special to him than affection could have been from others, such as the woman Rita whom he connects with temporarily. Lolita remains indifferent to Humbert in spite of knowing what he is. Humbert, unrepentant and insincere as he might seem, would be a fool to not desperately fear the reactions that people would have to him knowing what he truly is. To find acceptance from Lolita, even if it is by way of her indifference, is a deeper connection than he could hope to have with anyone. So when he has no remaining hope of having her in his life, Humbert has little left to hope for at all.

The murder of Quilty is necessary because Humbert cannot possibly suffer such a loss without some sort of retaliation. Quilty makes a perfect scapegoat for Humbert’s suffering. For starters, he possesses the same affliction that has made Humbert so miserable. Killing Quilty can serve, for Humbert, as a symbolic gesture representing killing that part of himself that he most hates. Even worse than being a symbol for Humbert’s affliction, Quilty is the one Humbert blames for the loss of Lolita. No matter that she wanted to go, wanted to leave him, Quilty was the one who took her, and for that he would have to pay. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Humbert had to kill Quilty because he was the only one that Lolita had been crazy about. Quilty would be able to have the only thing that Humbert suspected could make him happy, and he was not interested. He had let her go.

Humbert’s deception throughout this book runs deep; he misleads the readers and misinterprets himself. Nabokov carefully constructed the narrative to capture this deception, touching on themes of Americanism versus Europeanism, sexuality and psychology, and love and fixation. Somehow, in all of the lies, Humbert’s tragic love story rings very true.

An Essay for The Nation

When asked what is of most concern to my generation, I am inclined to respond that we seem to be most concerned with fashion and entertainment, though I know that distorts the meaning of the language in the question. A vast majority of people under thirty, however, seem to be more interested in issues of style than in other issues, such as those that will require our greatest attention as we gradually inherit the responsibilities of designing the legacy we will leave behind are far removed from those concerns. Style is nice, for sure, but we probably do not need many more generations about which we can say, “They left our world in a sorry state, but they dressed well and made great music.” In all seriousness, my generation needs more than anything else to develop global awareness, shared values, and a sense of conscience. As with any other generation, we have a preoccupation with art and entertainment, so the arts will be, as they have always been, an ideal medium for sparking and fueling social change.

Ignorance and apathy are two of the most destructive social forces affecting the coming-of-age population in the United States. Our entertainment industry imposes a limited vision of the world on the youth, with an emphasis on the flashy, materialistic successes of Hollywood superstars. We are taught to put great value on wearing the right clothes and listening to the right music, presenting the right image of ourselves to the people around us. Those who are fortunate enough to have any idea what life is like in other cities, States, and nations seem to easily adopt an attitude that socioeconomic disparities are caused by laziness or lack of ambition. We have a difficult time empathizing with those who can barely afford to eat because we are too caught up in believing that we are impoverished when we cannot afford a new wardrobe every season or the latest DVD-equipped SUV. Young people are encouraged to find a place for themselves in the corporate superstructure, to insulate themselves from the dangers of poverty and secure the means to stay with the times and provide the greatest excesses for their families. We are encouraged to use credit to finance our lifestyle. If we pull it off, if we can convince the people around us that we are capable and accomplished because we have spent enough on our clothes and cribs, then we will eventually be able to pay off our debts. We would be surprised to learn just how much we have compared to those who experience real poverty, and maybe we could begin to understand the problems of the world around us if we were not incessantly inundated with artificial concerns.

In recent years, the popular media seems to be evolving gradually to incorporate a more international perspective. As young people who are willing to stretch their limits begin to have an opportunity to see portrayals of life outside of the United States, we are presented with a challenge to reconsider our values systems. The awareness of actual poverty and need in the world around us should awaken in us a sense of the need to reevaluate the traditional American dream of wealth and prosperity. Where we once believed that prosperity is defined by abundance to excess, we must now begin to face the reality that we have much more than we could ever hope to need. Our values can evolve to include the well-being of others, not just in our own nation but abroad as well. Individualism has hypnotized us into believing that we must meet not only our own needs first, but also our own desires; nationalism has taught us that when we have met our own needs and fulfilled our desires, our duty is to help the people in our country to meet their needs and wants. We demonstrate very little capacity for understanding the differences between needs and desires, and we fail to pay attention to the fact that human desire is unlimited. We tell ourselves that we will help the needy of our own country when we have satisfied ourselves, but we continually re-draw the line in the sand. Similarly, we say that we will help impoverished people in other parts of the world when we have satisfied the people of our nation. When our values evolve to incorporate the needs of all of humanity, we will have an opportunity to develop a collective conscience.

Our conscience must serve as the ability to identify disparities between the values we express and the values demonstrated by our actions. When we have developed such conscience, we will no longer be able to form legal entities whose sole priority is profit. Providing for the common welfare of humanity must become our guiding virtue, a virtue that never interferes with individual rights though it may supersede individual privileges, including the privilege of extravagance.

Indefensible Luzhin

The Defense tells the story of a man bestowed with deeper vision than most who seems only to be able to look at one thing—the chess board. Nabokov writes Luzhin’s life much like a chess game, whose developments are informed by the limitations of the pieces in play and guided by movements in the direction of an unseen goal. Luzhin does not seem to know much of his capabilities, chess-related or otherwise. He simply obeys his drive to play chess, unquestioningly, to the best of his ability, which is phenomenally strong. Navigating his way through the chess games move by move in response to the forces that he sees at work on the board, Luzhin’s games are constricted to certain possible outcomes. In the same way, his life seems to unfold as an interplay of his chess abilities—an initial trajectory—and the people and events that he encounters—obstacles or aids in reaching the final goal. Luzhin’s aunt, for example, plays an important role by introducing him to the game when she did. His parents also play significant roles, affecting Luzhin in the way they relate to each other and in the way they handle him during his formative years. Valentinov plays one of the single most influential roles in the shaping of Luzhin’s chess-game life. At the beginning of Luzhin’s career with the game of chess, Valentinov appears and serves as an introduction and guide to the society where he will spend the greater part of his life. The lifestyle that is established for Luzhin is the one that will carry him all the way through to the breakdown that separates him from chess, and Valentinov’s emergence serves to interrupt the dull existence that ensues. Valentinov’s role in Luzhin’s life, then, is too big to be described by a single piece. Valentinov represents an entire strategy—that of the opposing player—to overcome Luzhin.

Valentinov is not introduced in the story until page seventy-five, thirty percent of the way into the book. “There appeared a certain Valentinov, a cross between tutor and manager.” He simply happens to appear, arising from the context of Luzhin’s story the way a sequence of moves would in the context of a game of chess. Valentinov is described primarily as being mysterious and gifted, a “jack-of-all-trades” (81). Through the eyes of Luzhin Senior, who reluctantly includes Valentinov in the novel based on his son’s situation, we learn that Valentinov went abroad during the war, “what he did…remained unknown” (id). Luzhin Senior refuses to accuse him of being a deserter, and in conjunction with the reference to Valentinov’s “important secret business affairs and money tucked away in all the banks of allied Europe,” it nearly seems that Valentinov could have been a spy during the war, earning the money and freedom to do as he pleases later in life (80). Whatever the case, Valentinov is a man who is free to follow his amusement, which wanders to film when he loses interest in Luzhin and chess. In spite of the fact that “Valentinov was only interested in him as a chess player,” and “he was interested in Luzhin only inasmuch as he remained a freak,” or rather in order to more fully exploit that fact, Valentinov plays the role of father while Luzhin Senior is left in Russia, wondering about his son (93, 92). In writing the fictional account of his son’s story, Luzhin Senior writes about a boy “who was taken from city to city by his father (foster father in the novella)” (75). Nabokov makes it clear that the confusion about the roles of Luzhin Senior and Valentinov is universal. Luzhin Senior becomes especially disturbed by the situation when he returns home alone, because Valentinov claims that “Russia now had no time for chess, while his son was kept alive solely by chess” (79). Luzhin Senior begins to “loathe Valentinov,” who “proposed…to assume all the costs of the boy’s maintenance himself” (id). Young Luzhin’s entire development out of childhood took place under the auspices of Valentinov, and his father is only able to manage brief glimpses. When Luzhin Senior must “extract—carefully and piece by piece—and admit whole to his book—Valentinov,” it is entirely clear that Luzhin Senior’s own role as father has been eliminated, and he has been replaced by Valentinov (81). The insult added to injury is that, “thanks to [Valentinov’s] presence any story acquired extraordinary liveliness, a smack of adventure” (82). It is no great loss when Luzhin Senior finally dies, as he had done nothing for a long time but take pride in a son who had been taken from him.

When Valentinov took Luzhin under his wing, he not only assumed responsibility for his safety and well-being, but he also took responsibility for his development as a person. Unfortunately, he did not see it that way. “During the whole time that he lived with Luzhin he unremittingly encouraged and developed his gift, not bothering for a second about Luzhin as a person,” Nabokov points out, adding that Luzhin had been overlooked by “not only Valentinov but life itself” (92). Where Luzhin the child might have had some range or multitude of qualities and attributes that could have been cultivated and nurtured, the Luzhin who emerges is left with nothing but his abilities as a player of chess. If his life had been a game of chess, he would have been stripped by mid-game of many of his powerful pieces, and he would be left to play the endgame with just one piece. Valentinov sees a logic in this approach:

“he had a peculiar theory that the development of Luzhin’s gift for chess was connected with the development of the sexual urge…fearing lest Luzhin should squander his precious power in releasing by natural means the beneficial inner tension, he kept him at a distance from women and rejoiced over his chaste moroseness.” (94)

Valentinov does not simply fail in caring for Luzhin’s personal development; he actively chooses to neglect and stifle that development. He promotes Luzhin’s lopsided development in order to strengthen his abilities with chess, but Luzhin’s failure to function effectively in any other area ultimately contributes to his downfall. Valentinov’s example served to be all Luzhin had from which to understand the concept of parent, friend, and lover. Preparing to abandon his protégé, Valentinov “made a gift to Luzhin of some money, the way one does to a mistress one has tired of,” then “dropped out of Luzhin’s world, which for Luzhin was a relief, that odd kind of relief you get in resolving an unhappy love affair” (93). The young man “later regarded him the way a son might a frivolous, coldish, elusive father to whom one could never say how much one loved him” (id). With these models for understanding how he was to relate to the people in his life, Luzhin is left alone to float off into a life of unremarkable chess play.

Nabokov manages to fill a very large role in Valentinov with surprisingly few pages and words. Luzhin meets Valentinov on page seventy-five and is on his own before we reach one hundred, and it mirrors the fact that Valentinov’s role in his development is both brief and profound. His return, however, proves to wield much more influence. In the last twenty pages of the novel, Valentinov reemerges mysteriously. Luzhin’s wife is able to find no other explanation for who Valentinov is than that he was Luzhin’s “chess father.” She is unsettled by the appearance of this man because she believes that having chess brought back to the forefront of Luzhin’s consciousness will be detrimental to his health. Something about Valentinov himself seems to trouble Luzhin’s wife, as well, though she seems not quite able to identify what it is. The mysteriousness of Valentinov’s return is accentuated by the fact that Luzhin had already been backsliding by his own sort of complacence, “simply for lack of something to do” (242). Luzhin makes numerous references to an opponent who he expects will soon resume an onslaught against him, “by an implacable repetition of moves it was leading once more to that same passion which would destroy the dr
eam of life” (246). The return to playing chess would be unbearable for Luzhin, who would have no choice but to continue engaging in the grueling calculations and tiring strategies. The fear of that return has driven Luzhin into another sort of madness—an irrational suspicion that some grand plot in its final stages is attempting to swallow him up, and the defense that he hopes to concoct is one that will prevent him from being taken. He is therefore quite suspicious of Valentinov, who claims to be putting together a movie in which a heroic young lad who mistakenly ends up condemned becomes a professional chess player. “Turati has already agreed,” Valentinov tells Luzhin, and: “so has Moser. Now we need Grandmaster Luzhin…” (248). Luzhin is not convinced by Valentinov’s story and believes it part of the plot to condemn him to servitude on the chess board, and ultimately takes his own life in an effort to escape.

Valentinov’s actual role then, is not entirely clear at the end of the novel. In Luzhin’s state of madness, not everything is what it really seems to be, and it is difficult to trust his suspicions. On the other hand, if fate or Nabokov himself could fill the role of the opponent Luzhin speaks of, the opponent who hopes to inflict upon him an endless succession of chess problems and unrest, then perhaps Valentinov fits into the puzzle not as an informed agent of Luzhin’s destruction, but rather as an unwitting accomplice in his undoing. Where many of the events that take place in Luzhin’s life could be represented on the chess board by pieces or even arrangements of pieces, Valentinov’s role is more complicated. His strong influence on the shape that Luzhin’s role in the chess community would take and his appearance at precisely the right, or wrong, moment to help push Luzhin over the edge, so to speak, could only be represented by principles that play themselves out on the chess board, the underlying forces from which individual pieces gain their strength. Valentinov is not to blame for Luzhin’s demise, because he himself was a pawn forced by the hand of fate, the pen of Nabokov.

Nwoye and Milkman: Growing Up Black in Racially Turbulent Times

The twentieth century provided a great deal of change for Black people worldwide. The first years of the century were characterized by the influx and sudden increase of white people in Africa, while the middle of the century brought the era of civil rights struggles for black Americans. Literature does as it tends to do and captured elements of these changing times, and examination of novels by and about Black people in these times can help to cultivate an awareness of the similarities and differences for Black people in these two times and places. Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart about the course of events in one fictionalized Black African’s life up to and during the arrival and proliferation of white people in the land. The story line follows Okonkwo, a strong self-made man who wields a great deal of power and influence in the tribe, who ultimately ends up killing himself when it seems to him as though the way of life that he treasured was no longer possible. Toni Morrison, on the other hand, wrote Song of Solomon about one Black American man’s life and the black community around him. The life of this man, Milkman Dead, is similar in many ways to the life of Nwoye, the son of Achebe’s protagonist in Things Fall Apart, and their respective reactions to the community around them and the changing times are vastly different but uniquely paralleled.

Nwoye emerges in Things Fall Apart as a foil to the main character, Okonkwo, who rose to a position of status within his village as a result of hard work and intensity. Nwoye is characterized as he is introduced in the novel as someone who suffers from “incipient laziness,” unlike his father who must nag and beat him in order to teach him to work (Achebe 13). Okonkwo’s attitude toward his son Nwoye is very similar to his attitude toward his father, who he believed was a complete failure and an embarrassment, because he owned no property and had no titles of distinction among the tribe. One of the most significant situations in Nwoye’s early life is the introduction of Ikemefuna, an orphan of sorts who must be cared for by Okonkwo’s family. Ikemefuna is close in age to Nwoye and becomes like a brother to him in the years that he spends with the family, and he comes also to regard Okonkwo as a father figure (Achebe 28). In their affection towards Ikemefuna, Nwoye and Okonkwo are very similar, but their difference is displayed in their reactions to their feelings. Ikemefuna cannot be allowed to live indefinitely, as he is a prisoner of war, and Okonkwo overcompensates for his tender feelings about the boy by wrongfully taking place in the execution that was inevitable (Achebe 61). Nwoye is deeply hurt at the loss of Ikemefuna and the situation adds to a sense of indignation building in him toward tribal customs that began when he bore witness to “twinfanticide” (Achebe 62). And while Okonkwo seems to make a half-hearted effort to mourn with his son, Nwoye has no interest or sympathy for his father’s plight or point of view, and escapes from his father’s hut when his father passes out from drinking palm wine (Achebe 63).

Milkman Dead is the son of Macon Dead, a man known in the black community for being a shrewd and unforgiving businessman. Macon is characterized as being not only a cold, calculating businessman, but also as an unaffectionate and difficult husband. His wife, Ruth, as a result was a woman who was starving for affection, so much so that she continued to breastfeed her son well beyond the appropriate age, yielding him the nickname Milkman (Morrison 15). Milkman is very different from his father in the sense that he is generous and personable, and yet he is very similar to his father in that he is good with the property and rents business and he assumes that he will continue doing the work his father does indefinitely (Morrison 107). Milkman is intrigued by his father’s sister, Pilate, and her family, Reba and Hagar, and more importantly, he falls in love with Hagar, his cousin. Macon Dead insists that his son should have no contact with these women because of his ill feelings toward Pilate, and yet they become a regular part of his life, like his best friend Guitar. Guitar and Milkman begin to go separate ways as they grow older, and yet, once they acknowledge and accept each other’s differences, they seem to be able to support each other as best they can in spite of them (Morrison 114). Milkman’s choice to end his relationship with Hagar, with whom he has grown bored, prompts her to periodically threaten his life, and Guitar responds by helping Milkman to subvert Hagar’s efforts. Among the most important aspects of Milkman as a character, though, is his sense of separation or distance from members of his own race and class. He grows up the only son of one of the most affluent Black families in the neighborhood, and his feeling of difference from the rest of his peers is symbolically represented by legs that are not equal in size (Morrison 62).

Nwoye and Milkman Dead are characters whose lives are shaped by similar circumstances. To begin with, they share a great deal of common ground in their roles as sons of aggressive, influential men in their respective communities. Both Okonkwo and Macon Dead II are exceptionally strong, determined, and self-assured men, so much so that it would be foolish to expect even an unusually masculine son to live up to the precedent. Nevertheless, both young men struggle with the pressure to emulate their fathers and to make them proud. Then there is the issue of cultural influence. With Nwoye, we see early on that he has difficulty accepting the practices of his society, particularly where the abandonment of twins and the murder of Ikemefuna are concerned. The problems that Nwoye experiences with the customs of his people could illustrate a general tendency toward decay among the society, a part of an already-unweaving social fabric, or they could represent the types of struggles that many generations experienced in abiding by particular traditions, traditions that had been preserved, perhaps not always without closer inspection, up to the time that Nwoye lived. With Milkman, on the other hand, we see the difficulties that he experiences as the result of many social stigma attached to his particular character by way of race, class, and gender in already turbulent social settings. Milkman does not take issue with specific and relatively stable cultural practices, but rather is under a great deal of pressure to respond to a number of changing social and cultural values, including his role as a businessman, his role as a member of a family and as the potential head of his own family, and his role as a citizen and a human being in a time of chaotic race relations. So, while these young men come from similar situations, those situations are anything but the same.

In Nwoye’s lifetime, an alternative way of life impresses itself upon the people of his tribe by way of Christian missionaries and the beginnings of colonial government. During a period of time that was particularly difficult for Nwoye’s father, Okonkwo, missionaries began to attempt to bring the message of Christianity to Africans who were unfamiliar with white people in general. Okonkwo and Nwoye, along with the rest of their family, were spending time in the land of Okonkwo’s mother’s family, exiled from their home as a result of an accidental killing. While the message of Christianity is dismissed immediately by some as nonsense, it appeals to the sensibilities and needs of others. Those in the tribe who see no sense in the new religion disregard it as harmless, but it is because of the new religions subtle appeal to others that it gains strength. Nwoye, in particular, finds a great deal of relief in the new religion, relief in the form of an affirmation of his feelings about the twins that had been killed (Achebe 147). Nwoye chooses to convert to the new faith and is disowned by his father, who ultimately realizes that Christianity has forever changed the face of his homeland and he will neverbe able to have the sort
of life that he yearned for. Nwoye illustrates an important point through his role in this story, which is that it was through the introduction of an invasive worldview that native cultures were subverted. It is because Nwoye has an alternative religion to which he can convert that he does convert, whereas he would have likely had to suffer quietly as a part of a silent majority if Christianity had never been introduced to the region. It is possible, and even likely, that many people in generations before Nwoye’s lifetime felt similarly with respect to some of the more callous tribal customs, and yet the dissenting voices were silenced by the needs of the group. Nwoye represents just one segment of the Igbo population that was dissatisfied with tradition and leapt on the opportunity to try something new.

Milkman lives in a time when race relations between Black and White Americans are in major upheaval. And while his best friend Guitar is secretly a member of a pro-Black movement that believes in killing whites for revenge, Milkman is more concerned with finding his role as an individual in society and in his interpersonal relationships than he is with the issues of race. Each young man has his own motivations when they rob Pilate, stealing a bag of bones thinking that they are getting away with gold. And when they are stopped by a police officer as a result of racial profiling, they are taken to jail until the police find a satisfying, if untrue, story about the bones. In the wake of their catch and release, Milkman begins to undergo significant change. In his preoccupation with money as a means to his own independence and in his being subject to racial prejudice, Milkman has begun to experience feelings that make him feel more like a member of the Black community. He notices that his legs seem to be, for the first time in a long time, the same size as each other. This marks his newfound ability to feel like a normal person, and to feel a sense of compassion not just for members of his own race, but for people of any race. This solidifies his disagreements with Guitar, and when Milkman embarks on his journey to learn more about his family history, Guitar begins to suspect him of further self-centeredness. Ultimately, Milkman’s journey to become a part of his own family, his race, and of humanity in general leads him to the point where he is unafraid to sacrifice himself for the sake of others, in his final stand against the hate that Guitar condones.

Both of these men are living in times of serious cultural upheaval, and their corresponding reactions to the changing times are at once very similar and very different. Nwoye is a member of a culture that, for all intensive purposes, has remained relatively unchanged for a significant period of time. The drawbacks to the way of life to which he was accustomed troubled him deeply, as they likely troubled others who went before him, but the way of life also provided many favorable conditions and approaches to the environment and human relations. The drawbacks to their way of life, however, weighed heavily on Nwoye’s mind when he was presented with an opportunity to choose another way to live, and he chose, as many did, to give up the religion and lifestyle of his ancestors. It was the result of this type of choice being made by many among the native tribes of Africa that Christianity and colonial occupation was made possible. The harsh reality of the situation is that Okonkwo was right in believing that any hopes for a life of tradition had been dashed with the onset of Christian settlement. In Song of Solomon, though, Milkman dead is inspired through his course of life events to respond in a constructive, tradition-affirming way to the serious social changes that are occurring. Where Okonkwo disowned his son for turning his back on African tradition, Macon Dead insisted that his son embrace the spirit of capitalism, and “own things…own yourself and other people too” (Morrison 55). Both sons ultimately turn their backs on their fathers, but while Milkman does it in a way that connects him more deeply to the world of his story, Nwoye does so in a way that take him out of the world of his story and links him to another, remote world.

Both of these novels help to illustrate the plight of Black men, and Black people in general, in the twentieth century. Where Achebe was able to write a story that focused on the collapse of a way of life and the imposition of western culture on African tribes, Morrison detailed the struggle of Black Americans struggling to overcome the affects of uprooted family trees and second-class citizenship. And while these stories seem to have a different trajectory, and capture the sadness of changing times and some of the joy of life-affirming interpersonal relationships, both seem illustrate the general principle through these young man’s lives that things change, but life goes on.

The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and King Lear

Kathleen Mcluskie’s essay about King Lear insists that there is no proper reading of the play that does not recognize the play’s inherent misogyny. This essay approaches the text from a feminist theory perspective, paying special attention to the role of patriarchy and how Shakespeare reinforces that system with this play. Ultimately, Mcluskie’s assessment of the play from that perspective holds that King Lear supports the notion of patriarchy and that Shakespeare must be subverted in order for alternatives to misogyny and patriarchy to be possible. Mcluskie’s argument that the play reinforces patriarchal values is well-supported by the text of the play itself, particularly through the play’s treatment of Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, but she falsely asserts that Shakespeare endorses patriarchy as a preferred social order because he addresses “permanent, universal and essentially unchanging human nature” in a patriarchal setting.

In this essay, Mcluskie uses ample evidence from the text of the play to support her claim that the play reinforces values of a patriarchal system. She correctly points to the treatment of Goneril and Regan throughout the play as women who attempt to disturb the order of that system, only to suffer and be punished. Their disruption of traditional gender roles results in chaos, but Cordelia’s willingness to accept her role in that patriarchal structure serves to reinforce order and peace. While Mcluskie correctly demonstrates how these relationships support patriarchy and a sort of misogyny in the play, she steps too far when she suggest that the play can only avoid that sexism by not reconstructing it “with its emotional power and its moral imperatives intact.”

Mcluskie rightly points out that the play’s sexism can be undermined through production choices, but her essay essentially argues that, in order to retain its grasp on Shakespeare’s interpretations of universal truths about human nature, it must continue to reinforce that sexism and patriarchy. When the play is staged in such a way that the patriarchy is undermined, it loses some of its emotional power and moral imperatives. But this seems to suggest that patriarchy is one of the moral imperatives that must remain intact. The play sprang from a world of patriarchy and misogyny, but simply because that is the setting of the play’s action does not necessarily mean that it is among the universal truths that the play aims to illustrate or support. The sympathetic characters in this play might happen to be the characters whose roles reinforce patriarchal order, but that does not necessarily mean that they are sympathetic because they do so. Certainly Mcluskie would recognize that the role Goneril and Regan play in undermining the patriarchal order is not necessarily productive, so why must the roles that Lear and Cordelia play in reinforcing order be construed as counterproductive simply because that order is patriarchal. I think that the force of Shakespeare’s argument is not that patriarchal should be preserved, but rather that any form of order should be preserved when the moving force behind undermining that order is greed and self-interest, as in the case of Goneril and Regan. After all, these women were not undermining the order of the time in the interest of equal rights, they simply wanted to take what they could get.

Making a Home for Suffering in Samuel Beckett’s Ill Seen Ill Said

Samuel Beckett’s works emerge as a collection of incredibly unique fiction in the twentieth century, breaking the mold of traditional form and setting new precedents in the creation of narrative. Beckett downplayed the role of character and plot in much of his fiction and gave much more attention to image and setting. One work in particular, Ill Seen Ill Said, does very little to tell a story, but instead constructs a vivid and haunting landscape as seen through the eyes of a paranoid, tortured narrator. Throughout the piece, the narrator urges himself to be careful but to move on in the description, which is heightened poetic language with frequent repetition and rhyme. The narrator constructs a world that is barren and desolate, a cabin surrounded by landscape in which an old, dying woman is monitored closely by twelve watchmen around the perimeter. Beckett has a strong tendency toward solipsism, especially apparent in Company, and that solipsism would suggest that the world he creates in Ill Seen Ill Said is not a place for the punishment of an other, but a place for the containment of something within Beckett himself. Beckett’s unresolved issues with his mother and some unspeakable cruelty or injustice to which she subjected him seem to have been among the prime sources of his inspiration for writing, and this piece creates a world that serves as a home for the pain with which he so strongly identifies himself.

Ill Seen Ill Said opens in a manner that sets the tone for the rest of the piece, introducing a disembodied voice that speaks of an old woman in repetitious, poetic language. “From where she lies she sees Venus rise. On. From where she lies when the skies are clear she sees Venus rise followed by the sun” (Beckett 49). Immediately Beckett engages the narrative tone of a speaker who must consistently implore himself to continue in his creation of this world. This insistence that he must carefully go on indicates that the subject matter is deeply discouraging and wrought with elements that pose some threat. As in that first paragraph, Beckett’s narrator likely reminds himself to move on in places where the subject matter of what he’s just said or is about to say is particularly threatening or emotionally turbulent, whether as a reminder not to dwell too long on the things he’s just said or as encouragement to move along into what follows. On page 58, for example, when speaking of confusion, Beckett ends a paragraph with such a reminder: “If only all could be pure figment. Neither be nor been nor by any shift to be. Gently. Gently. On. Careful.” In this instance, Beckett’s narrator seems to be admonishing himself to be careful not where he goes, but with what he’s just said. He forces himself to move forward instead of dwelling on an idea—the idea that it could all be imaginary. Dwelling on that idea could be dangerous for one of at least two reasons; either he refuses to dwell on the idea because it is all imaginary, and he cannot take pressure of having to recognize himself as the creator, or he refuses to consider this idea much because the world is real and he is powerless to change it. But on pages 50 and 51, there are two paragraphs in which “Careful” is the second or third sentence. The first of these begins, “The Cabin. Its situation.” This cabin being the source of the evil, Beckett’s narrator is understandably hesitant to tell its story. On 51, then, when describing the layout of the grounds, Beckett’s narrator says, “As though outlined by a trembling hand.” He then urges himself onward, again, leaving presumably two possible readings: the outlining to which he referred may have been done by the narrator himself, and by mentioning it, he might be giving himself away as having conjured the entire idea, or he is warning himself to be careful about what he is preparing to say, which is further description of this world. Whatever the reason, Beckett intermittently draws attention, by way of urging himself onward in this prose to the difficult business, emotionally, of creating this piece.

Beckett focuses through the piece on the old woman, presumably his mother. Much of his work includes his mother, whose presence in his psyche, much like in his work, proved to play an incredibly strong role. And while it might be tempting to say that this piece is about his mother, because the entire story revolves around a woman trapped in this strange world, it seems more realistic that writing about her was a means to another end for Beckett. Adelman writes in Naming the Unnamable, “. . . the fictional status of Beckett himself . . . suspects that there is no way to liberate the prince whom he would believe is inside him. Needing to know may be the deepest motive of a creative drive” (Adelman 37). If Beckett is creating this world in order to learn something about himself—whether or not he can liberate the “prince” within—then his extensive discussion of his mother must only be a way to learn something more about himself.

Ill Seen Ill Said makes frequent references to an evil that haunts the world that Beckett creates, an evil whose center seems to be in the room that Beckett refuses to explore. “Another pillar of Beckett’s solipsism seems to arise from his artistic minimalism that directly lends to the last, minimal, and actually non-reducible residue of all subjectivity: the ego” (Gontarski 216). The world that Beckett creates here, then, is a projection of his psychological status, a projection of his subconscious. Simplifying and reducing the elements of himself, Beckett managed in this work to strive for an understanding of himself. “The quest for the real ‘I’ parodically strips away all that which informs the minds of ordinary people” (Adelman 37). Beckett is far from ordinary, and in his quest for the real ‘I’, he finds, in a cabin inhabited by his mother, a room that he does not enter. This room is an embodiment, it seems, of the very evil to which he refers continually—”what the wrong word”—and he refuses to enter. It would seem that he is afraid of confronting or remembering this horrible evil, or that he is not prepared to deal with it. I strongly suspect, however, that he cannot enter that room because he does not know what lies in there; he has no way of knowing. The great evil, for Beckett, is a suspicion, something that he cannot remember because it happened before he was capable of creating memories. And yet by building this world, he has captured it; he has contained it in a single room in a cabin surrounded by watchmen.

It is important to note, at this point, that Beckett’s tendency is toward solipsism in his writing. Essentially, solipsism is the idea that nothing really exists outside of one’s mind. “But if philosophical solipsism is no more than a provisional, ephemeral, almost fictional stage in the development of an argument, it appears in Beckett’s work as one of the leitmotifs that stamp his artistic construct with the indelible emblem of an impossible wager” (Gontarski 215). But what is Beckett wagering here? With the cabin, the woods, his mother, the watchmen, the room; what wager is made? If it can be said to be a win or lose situation, then perhaps success for Beckett is simply the successful creation of this world. Or perhaps, by imprisoning some part of himself, he hopes to destroy a part of himself. Marcoulesco goes on to say that “[Beckett’s] version of cosmic pessimism is coupled with an abhorrence of self and the sheer mystical bent to destroy it whenever feasible” (Gontarski 220-21). Perhaps this world is meant to destroy that part of himself that he is capturing. The room, the cabin, his mother—all captured in this world to wither and die, and the watchmen to ensure that it all happens as it should.

This brings up another issue. Ill Seen Ill Said creates a world of paranoia—embodied in the very least by the watchmen—and painful preoccupation with the past. According to Beckett’s narrator, the old woman seems to glance out at the watchmen frequently, and yet they remain at adistance. “She never once saw one come toward her. Or she forgets. She forgets” (Beckett 52). These menacing watchmen, and this woman’s resigned loneliness at their hands, flavors the atmosphere in this story with a sense of fearfulness. That fearfulness is also characterized by the references to a mysterious past. At one point, on page 62, we are told, “Lashes jet black remains of the brunette she was. Perhaps once was. When yet a lass. Yet brunette.” This is an almost sympathetic treatment of the old woman, whose past and the idea of a better life seem to flash before us momentarily. Instead, now the woman is described differently: “The long white hair stares in a fan. Above and about the impassive face. Stares as if shocked still by some ancient horror.” This description of the woman makes her seem ghostly, and it leaves open the idea that perhaps she herself is haunted. What could terrify her so that she would not try to find some relief or escape? “On its yellowed face in barely legible ink two letters followed by a number. Tu 17. Or Th. Tu or Th 17” (Beckett 71). This woman seems to exist in a timeless sort of world, and so it begs the question, What has brought her here? What happened in this cabin? And when? One might think that the men watching her would provide answers or sort of explanation. Who are these guys, anyway?

It has been suggested that the watchmen in Ill Seen Ill Said are copies of Beckett, who must monitor this world, keeping his mother in captivity, and preserve the world so that Beckett can return to it as a source of comfort or as a reminder. But are these watchmen really guarding Beckett’s mother? “What then if not her do they ring around?” (Beckett 61). It is possible that these men form a ring, not around the woman but around the room. This room serves as Beckett’s muse, his inspiration. The painful secret locked inside that room is not only captured by this piece and held stable by the watchmen, it is kept as a source of Beckett’s entire identity. In his solipsism, that room becomes a central element in existence, but also, this entire world created in Ill Seen Ill Said is but a function of Beckett’s mind, and all of its characters only aspects of Beckett’s own psyche. The watchmen, then, are another part of Beckett, perhaps a vantage point from which he is able to return to this world and soak it in through the eyes of observers at all sides. This world is Beckett’s and these watchmen reinforce that, serving as sentries, so that none can enter this world but through the words that Beckett provides us.

Ill Seen Ill Said is not a prison for Beckett’s mother, but instead is the culmination of his work, a place to contain his torment to which he can return for inspiration, comfort, and release. “impotent as he is against Omnipotence, he goes on embellishing, searching, weaving the colossal fabric that is the story of his persecutions. The punishers cannot make him live in the world of their creation” (Adelman 84). Beckett might be helpless to do anything about the omnipotent forces in his life, but he has creative control over the worlds he creates as a thinker and a writer. And while solipsism might suggest that the universe simply exists in Beckett’s mind, and he should therefore be able to exert complete control over that. An answer for that would be that even in writing, we cannot always do exactly what we set out to do. With much time and practice, Beckett has had an opportunity to increase his relative control of the field of words and the feel of the language. He lived in a world in which he felt there was no meaning and nothing worthwhile, and so he created instead in a world of his own, and this world put forth by Ill Seen Ill Said is a place to which he can comfortably return and delight in the idea that his mother is trapped, the room in which she so greatly wronged him is cut off from the world, and the watchmen keep guard to ensure that things stay as they are. Beckett’s pain and torment are captured in this piece and redirected at his mother, who wanders aimlessly, pondering why she has not yet died. And though Beckett seems to take some pleasure in her suffering, that suffering does not seem to be the purpose for her presence. She is there as a reminder to Beckett, a consolation to Beckett, for the wrongs to which she subjected him, wrongs that might simply have been the fact that she gave birth to him, bringing him into a world in which language struggles to force meaning onto what Beckett believes is pointless and futile, a “void.” Or perhaps she attempted to abort him and failed, and the scars of being unwanted even by his mother are too deep to escape. Or perhaps he simply never felt that she loved him as he needed to be loved. Whatever it was, his mother is inextricably tied to the torture he experiences in life, and Ill Seen Ill Said serves to capture that pain and give it a home.

Beckett’s solipsism and a preoccupation with some evil that has been done to him by his mother, something that he is incapable of remembering that haunts him nevertheless, ultimately produced this work, Ill Seen Ill Said. Where Beckett tends to approach his art and perhaps his perspective on life with general solipsism—as though the entire Universe is simply a function of his mind, this piece emerges as a corner of that mind that holds significant psychological factors that affected his state of mind and sense of well being. As he approaches the end of the piece, his attitude takes on an upbeat tone as he seems to have finally created a place for that pain to remain, and his rejoice is not at having to never revisit his thoughts and feelings about his mother, but he rejoices that he will know exactly where to go in order to dwell on those issues. Beckett may have finally captured his mother in a world from which she cannot escape with his highly poetic language and bleak, vivid description. Somewhere in reading the piece, a sense emerges that Beckett is no longer practicing the skill of writing with Ill Seen Ill Said, he’s fine-tuned his style to such a point that he is able, finally, not only to capture his mother, but to create a place where he himself can live, truly alone as his solipsism calls for. Grace to breathe that void. Know happiness.