Although I had (and still have) very strong feelings about the whole baseball strike situation, I had refrained from commenting on it here because I was hoping against hope that, for the first time in the history of labor relations between the owners and the players since the age of free agency began, they would be able to reach a deal by their own self-imposed deadline and save the fans (whose numbers would have dwindled sharply had they not reached a deal) from having to suffer while they argue.
I didn't really expect them to, though, so it was a nice surprise when they did. It's ridiculous that they had to stay up all night to do so, but still, I guess they deserve some credit. A strike of any length would have alienated an increasingly fickle fan base that is more likely to just forget about the sport and watch football instead of following the day-to-day machinations of the lawyers for each side haggling over what is, in the end, a relatively insignificant amount of money.
Unlike most Americans who call themselves baseball fans, I am almost completely on the players' side in this conflict. After nearly a century of complete and absolute opression by the owners, they were finally given proper standing under the law to file grievances, and they took full advantage, forming a strong union that gradually gained for the players many of the same rights vis-a-vis their employers that the rest of us take for granted. I don't want to go into a detailed history of that process here (this book is a good introduction), but suffice it to say that before 1972, players were basically indentured servants to the owners if they wanted to play baseball for a living. Free agency and many of the other so-called concessions by the owners over the course of several labor struggles were really just the proper application of the capitalist system that our economy is based on to the contracts that exist between the players on the field and the owners in the luxury boxes.
I don't get hung up on the fact that these players are making an average of $2 million a year. What I remember is that average major league career of a player is only five years, and that usually comes after years of sacrifice and hard work. The long-term players certainly leave the sport very rich men, but then again, they are without a doubt the top 100 or so baseball players on the planet, and since it's their actions that generate all that revenue in the first place, I don't see what's so wrong with them trying to get a decent-sized hunk of it. The owners, on the other hand, are mostly megalomaniacal superrich assholes who buy baseball teams as much for the status aspect as they do because they can make fistfuls of money to add to their already considerable piles. I don't have a problem with them trying to make a profit, but when they lie to Congress (and Congress calls them on it) about how much money they are making/losing and try to use their own poor economic decisions as an excuse to revamp the pay structure, that's just obnoxious.
Remember, the only reason the players decided to set a strike date in the first place was because the owners refused to promise not to lock them out in the offseason; it was only because the owners basically told the players that they had no intention of bargaininng in good faith that the players had to act to make sure that they wouldn't get screwed. For those of you who don't know, baseball is currently the only big businessincluding other sportsin America that has an anti-trust exemption, meaning that baseball players have far fewer options to redress unfair labor practices than even the guy who gives you change at the 7-11. That means the players have to use unorthodox methods, like striking in the middle of the season, to insure that their voices are heardthey basically have to take the law into their own hands, because the law is not allowed to give them the same guarantees of equitable treatment that almost everyone else in this country enjoys. You wouldn't want your employer to be able to put an artificial limit on your salary so that, even if you were responsible for generating $1 million worth of revenue, the most you could make was $30,000, and you couldn't take your talents anywhere else because everyone else who might employ you was working under the same system. Well, the players don't want to work under a system like that, either, but the owners do.
The new deal is pretty fair, from what I can tell, with both sides making compromises from their original positions. The steroid testing stuff is long overdue, as is the increase in revenue sharing and increases in the luxury tax. All in all, the only thing either side has to be embarrassed about is how long it took them to reach a deal which any serious fans could have sketched out for them on a cocktail napkin in 20 minutes.
What has really surprised me this time around is how many baseball columnists seem to understand that the labor woes in baseball are largely the result of the owners wanting to return to the pre-free agency way of doing things, which is just not going to happen. Instead of endless rants about millionaire players acting like babies and sworn oaths to give up baseball forever if they strike, there was actually a fair amount of thoughtful, accurate reporting that dealt with the larger financial picture and didn't try to punish the players because they happen to be the public face of the game and therefore much easier to heap scorn onto than the largely anonymous owners. Some of the best are from writers like King Kauffman, (he also wrote another good one) Tim Keown, and Allen Barra,(he wrote another good one, too), but there are plenty of others available if you just dig around a little bit.
At any rate, I glad that it's all settled for now and that baseball will continue without interruption for another five years (it's technically a four year contract, though 2006, but there is a clause that automatically extends it another year if no deal has been reached by 2006, and given the history of these negotiations, that's almost certainly what will happen). It doesn't make up for past transgressions, like the abominable conflict in 1994 that elminated the World Series for the first time ever, but at least both sides seem to recognize that it's in their mutual best interest to keep all the labor stuff behind the scenes and out of the minds of the fans.
So the Braves will have yet another shot at the postseason, and I have a reason to care about things like September call-ups, home field advantage, and post-season pitching rotations. Plus, I still have a chance to catch CS Jeff in our fantasy league.
Remember when I said that September was going to be the Month of Content? Well, it still is, but thanks to the power going out for no apparent reason last night, I didn't have time to finish everything.
The basic premise is that, in addition to the normal updates to the site, I'm going to have three or four series of articles, projects, etc., that will run on the same day each week for the month of September, plus unveil a few new one-shot additions to the site. The goal is to have something new every day of the month, besides the stuff that I would normally post. So tomorrow (god willing), I'll post the stuff I was going to post on Monday and today, and then I'll try not to fall behind again.
Just one more day, I swear. Everything that would have been posted by tomorrow if I was on schedule is better than 90% done, but none of them are complete yet, and after a nearly sleepless night, I just don't have the energy to finish up that last 10%. Be patient. I think it will be worth it.
Right after I walked into the office this morning, I was accosted by one of new counselors waving an email from her dad around and telling everyone how to delete this file on their hard drives that had been put there by a malicious virus. Three people had already followed her instructions, and even though I found the offending file on my hard drive as well, I wanted to do a little research.
It turns out that it was the apparently widespread Jdbgmgr.exe hoax which has been spreading around the internet for the last couple of months. The file is actually part of a debugger for Java 1.1, but the worst thing that can happen if you delete is that some older Java programs might not run perfectly on your machine. Which is a good thing, because you can't restore the file at this point thanks to a legal squabble between Microsoft and Sun, the proprietors of the Java language.
To top it all off, later that day I saw an article on an article on ZDNet that talked about how hoaxes consume almost as much time and resources as legitimate viruses and spam. The number one hoax on their list: Jdbgmgr.exe.
Okay. Bring on the Month of Content!
This month, in addition to my normal daily entries, links, and photos, I will present five different series of content, each of which will run on their own day of the week. I'm trying to present a lot of different types of content, so it's more than just articles or essays presented on this page; in general, it will be content that you haven't seen very much of on this site.
Mondays are relatively tame, consisting of new reviews on Plug. I try to have a new review every Monday anyway, but this month I will review four albums that I think are among the best released this year, starting this week with Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot". It should have been the album of the year a couple of years ago, but it was definitely worth the wait.
On Tuesdays, I will post one of the four short pieces that I wrote for an art project based on Borges' "The Circular Ruins". My friend Tom was one of the driving forces behind this enormous collaborative project; I was just happy that they liked my work enough to use it. There are two poems and two short fiction pieces; I'll start with a poem this week ("strings", featured below) and then alternate between poetry and prose for the four weeks. I like the fiction pieces pretty well, but I am well aware that my poetry is rather clunky; try to appreciate its earnest sincerity and clever scientific references.
Wednesday is when I will introduce a new feature to the site, in general something that will become a regular part of the site's content. This first week doesn't exactly fit into that category, but this is really the best place to do it. I am going to finally finish up the when the walls fell project by adding my essay this week and closing out the project on the anniversary of the attacks with an essay by a rabbi friend of mine.
I have a lot of wildly impractical thoughts about how to improve the world, but every now and then I come up with an idea that I'm convinced would make a lot of money if it had the proper management, financial support, and marketing (I don't necessarily think that any of these would make the world a better place, however). I will unveil a new description of one of these ideas every Thursday. Let it be noted for the record that I am exerting whatever copyright protections I might have over these ideas, but really, if you use one of them to make a lot of money, I would probably be perfectly happy to receive a nice little percentage of the profits and avoid all that legal nastiness. This week's essay is featured below, an idea about how to improve Pez's market presence with an innovative extension of their brand that involves cross-pollinating with other well-known candy brands.
Finally, on Friday...well, I haven't exactly decided what I'm doing on Friday yet, so you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out what that day has in store.
duality is a circle
a mirror is a circle
i am a circle
a circle is not a circle
a circle is a sphere
moving through spacetime
a circle is a peabrain
moving through manifold undulations
a circle is a p-brane
moving through calabi-yaus
How to Make a Million Dollars: Part I in a Series
My first idea is one that I've been developing for several years, and it's so obvious that I'm surprised that no one else has thought of it or implemented it. It involves Pez dispensersyou know, those tiny rectangular candy holders with some sort of head on top. Collectors have been after them for years for the more unique ones or ones that feature pop culture figures (like cartoon or comic book characters), but really, when was the last time you had the urge to actually eat a Pez candy, despite the coolness of the dispenser. Let's face it: the candy sucks, a chalky little tablet with only the slightest hint of some overly processed industrial fruit flavor.
So why not replace the traditional candy with other well-loved brand name candies that have been molded into a Pez shape? Just off the top of my head, I can think of tons of different existing candy brands that would be perfectly suited for such a conversion: Skittles (in all their various flavor combinations, including the new mint ones), M&Ms, Altoids (all flavors), Chicklets, SweetTarts, Lemonheads, Eclipse (or any other king of gum with a shell), ShockTarts, Spree, Warheads, and mints like Tic-Tacs and Icebreakersthe list goes on and on. I even think that with a small modification to the traditional Pez design, you could successfully create Pez versions of some of the stickier hard candies like Jolly Ranchers, Life Savers, and Starlight Mints (in case you're curious, the modification would consist of a thin metal tongue that would slip in between the pieces of candy to help separate them).
Chocolate would be difficult, but I know there are varieties that don't melt as easily that could probably be used to as solid pellets or as coatings for other fillings, creating mini-candy bars that could also fit into the dispenser. The Pez dispenser could be further modified for quick loading, and the candy could be sold in cardboard clips that could instantly fill an empty dispenser.
I think this idea has realy potential, and I fully expect this to become a popular fad during my lifetime. But I probably won't see a dime from it.
Time to unveil Friday's feature. After a lot of scrambling, I've decided to post four essays that I wrote for classes in college. This week, I have selected my final paper for a British literature class in which I argue that a Byron play should actually be viewed as a screenplay, despite the fact that film was still a hundred years away. The professor was a very old scholarly type, and in fact I think this was the last class he ever taught. I had behaved myself pretty well in his class, sticking to less radical interpretations of works than I would have with a professor I knew better, but I was doing so well that I decided to throw caution to the wind and try this idea out on him. I never actually saw what I got on this paper (he didn't get them graded until a couple of days before graduation, and I was too busy to go by and pick it up), but I got an A for the class, so he must have liked it okay.
Reading this over again, I find myself wincing at the repetition and limited vocabulary that I employ, but I try to remind myself that a lot of the padding is just to meet the page limit. Trust me, even then, I was a much better writer than this paper would seem to indicate. Some of the arguments are a little specious (padding again), but all in all, I think the basic idea still has merit.
A Vision of the Future: Reading Byron's "Manfred" as a Screenplay
As Frank D. McConnell points out in his introduction to Byron's "Manfred", Byron knew that in some sense the play was a failure, and therefore he "insisted, both in letters and in prefaces to his plays, that they were never intended for performance on the stage" (124). But could it have been intended for performance in some other medium? The text of "Manfred" is grand in its conception, a play with settings so enormous and visually demanding that they could never be accurately depicted within the confines of a theater stage.
But these settings could be reproduced on a sound stage; the visual demands of "Manfred's" settings and events could be done in the medium of film. I want to suggest that Byron was caught halfway between the traditional concept of drama and the modern version: the movie script, or screenplay. He is reaching for a drama that is bigger than the stage, a visual extravaganza that captures the majesty of his theme with settings in castles and mountains. But, because film has not even been invented yet, he cannot imagine how to structure and contain such a grand design. "Manfred" is a play that is reaching for the future form of the screenplay, but without the medium of film that makes a screenplay possible. He knew that his drama was not suitable for the stage, that if it were presented as a typical drama, it would lose its visual power. It was meant for something larger than the stage; the medium of film would have provided the perfect outlet for the expression of visual ideas that Byron attempted in "Manfred".
It is important that we remember that "Manfred" was not intended for a theater audience, both because of its grand visual conception and because of its lack of action (in the sense of physical movement). In his book "Cinematics", Paul Weiss says that "[a] script is written for a film and not for an audience" (36). A script is meant to present the bare ideas and visual images which will be transformed into something believable by the actors, sets and director of a film. Or as Weiss says, a screenplay is "[n]ot offered as a novel or play is, as something to be enjoyed in the reading [or viewing], [but instead] the script verbally expresses a visualized idea which is to be filmed as an interrelated set of incidents" (26). Like a script, "Manfred" is meant to convey ideas and images that will later be utilized in the making of film; it is not meant to be read or viewed by an audience except in the final film form. Despite the fact that Byron could not have even imagined the future world of film and movies, he still recognized that there was something missing from "Manfred". This missing piece was the final realization of the play's ideas, settings, and images in the form of a film; it is a screenplay in a world that does not know of movies.
"Manfred" shares many other traits with the screenplay. All the texts which attempted to define a screenplay placed heavy emphasis on the visual element, since, of course, the screenplay is meant for film, a visual medium. For example, Bernard F. Dick, in his "Anatomy of Film", says that "[m]aterial that ... could not be shown on stage can be visualized in film. Significant places mentioned in the dialogue can be shown" (191). This would be true of "Manfred" if it were seen as a screenplay instead of a theatrical drama. Manfred's castle, the mountain of Jungfrau, the cataract of II, ii, and the Hall of Arimanesall of these could be pictured in their grandeur on film, which, of course, would add the grandeur to the play that its ideas demand. Whereas on stage, cheap sets and props could only attemptand ultimately failto capture the visual power of the settings that Byron has purposefully used in "Manfred". This ability to capture images is one of the most powerful arguments for viewing "Manfred" as a screenplay before its time instead of a failed drama.
Some other arguments for seeing "Manfred" as a pre-filmic screenplay are some of the complex visual images and characters that Byron introduces in the play. Aside from the grand settings that would require the use of film, Byron also creates several characters and props that would be visually difficult to reproduce on the stage. One of these instances occurs when the spirits appear to Manfred in the first act. The spirits themselves would present staging problems; in a film, the director could utilize special effects to make the spirits seem as majestic and otherworldly as Byron obviously wants them to be. But on stage the best that a director could use would be costumes or puppets. This would weaken the intensity of the drama, for they would seem like exactly what they are: props.
Note, too, the stage directions for the spirits' entrance: "A star is seen at the darker end of the gallery: it is stationary; and a voice is heard singing" (126); the place and time of this scene is a "Gothic Gallery" at midnight. Although this could be staged, it would be far less effective that it would be on film. On stage the proper effect of a gothic gallery, with its dark corners and vaulted arches, would be difficult to achieve, especially since there would still have to be enough light so that the actor was visible to the audience. Likewise, the spirits' entrance as a light at the one end of the stage would be difficult to achieve on stage, especially considering the ethereal and otherworldly effect that Byron obviously intended. On film, however, all of these sets and effects could be arranged so that they are not only convincing, but also in keeping with the dramatic effect that Byron was attempting: the gallery could be made suitably dark, gothic, and eerie, and the spirits' entrance could be made appropriately otherworldly. In requiring such grand effects, Byron knows that he is reaching for something beyond what the theater has to offerbut he doesn't know exactly what he is attempting, because he cannot conceive of the medium of film. From the first scene on, however, we, the 20th century, post-cinematic audience can see how Byron's play would be more appropriate as a screenplay than as a traditional staged drama.
Another scene whose setting and props would be nearly impossible to convincingly stage is II, iv, where Manfred visits the Hall of Arimanes, the "ruler of evil and earthbound spirits in the mythology of Zoroastrianism" (126). The first difficulty in preparing this scene for the theater stage would, of course, be to create a suitably impressive Arimanes; this difficulty would be increased by the fact that the director would be limited to the use of an ordinary man to play his part. Remember that Arimanes is supposed to be a larger-than-life ruler of the spirit world, whose might and majestythe "terror of his Glory" (145)must be stressed in order to make Manfred's refusal to bow to him that much more meaningful and impressive. Another difficulty would be in staging the scene according to Byron's directionshe says that Arimanes is seated on his throne, which is "A Globe of Fire" (144). The difficulties implicit here are obviousbut as in the earlier description of the spirits and their entrance into Manfred's gallery, the special effects available to the filmmaker would eliminate any problems in staging. And in fact, due to the spectacular visual imagery required, "Manfred" would actually be ideal to the requirements of a good filmwhich, of course, needs strong images in order to be effective.
There are other examples of strong visual cues in "Manfred" that could be used to strengthen my position, but I think that you see the point. There are other ways to approach "Manfred" as a screenplay, however. For instance, Weiss says that "[a] script need not tell a story; its development need not be in consonance with any dramatic rules. But it must express a meaning, and its development must unite beginning and end so as to constitute a single whole of contrasts and unions, tensions and resolutions" (24). This description is in some ways very apt when applied to Byron's play. Though he was, of course, aware of theatrical and dramatic conventions, and though he did utilize some of them in "Manfred", he also disregards many of them, such as the unity of place and some of the basic rules of staging, which I have already discussed. In addition, Byron virtually ignores the traditional structures of dramatic action, preferring instead to focus on psychological and spiritual drama. But the theme of the play, the struggle of man to reach beyond the power of man and the exploration of the farthest limits of human experience and possibilities, is developed and examined throughout the play. The play, whatever other failings it might have, is "a single whole of contrasts and unions, tensions and resolutions"; in this was as well it fits the mold of a screenplay.
We see other examples of Byron's difficulties inn writing a screenplay that is unaware of the existence of film and its techniques in his characters' language. Dick says that, even though it is based on a script, in a film "the script recedes into the background as it changes from a verbal to a visual text, so that by the time the film has been completed, the words have been translated into images" (200). We see Byron attempting, through poetic language spoken by his characters, to translate words into imagesexcept that he, without the benefit of film, is confined to use words only. Some of the speeches are spoken not because they are necessary to the movement of the play and its theme, but because the author want to describe an image that is either too large or too difficult to create on a theater stage. In other words, Byron has an image in his mind that goes along with the text, but that, due to the nature of conventional drama and its limitations, he finds impossible to actually showso he must use his characters' words to create that image.
One example of this comes in I, ii, when Manfred is engaged in a soliloquy about his mortality:
To be thus
Grey-haired with anguish, like these blasted pines,
Wrecks of a single winter, barkless, branchless,
A blighted trunk upon a cursed root.
On theater stage, where it would be impossible to show the expanse of trees that are the inspiration for Manfred's thoughts on his existence, Byron must rely on words to convey the images. And as poetic and descriptive as this speech is, it is still composed of words, which could never compare to the actual forest growing on the side of a mountain that was obviously Byron's influence for these images. But in a film, the camera could capture precisely what the words can only attempt to describe. The speech still might be used to provide insight into Manfred's mind, but they would achieve much greater power and meaning with an actual image to back them upinstead of the words simply substituting themselves for the image.
Another instance of this sort occurs in II, ii, the scene in which Manfred summons the Witch of the Alps from the mountain cataract:
It is not noonthe Sunbow's rays still arch
The torrent with the many hues of heaven,
And roll the sheeted silver's waving column
O'er the crag's headlong perpendicular,
And flings its lines of foaming light along,
And to and fro, like the pale courser's tail
This is only an excerpt of Manfred's first speech from this scene, and yet already we see how descriptive the language is, how it is filled with images. The rest of the passage is similarly descriptive and visually oriented, especially the description of the Witch of the Alps. If this were a screenplay, however, most of it would probably be crossed out, and used merely as a guide for the stage designer and special effects person. As powerful and beautiful as the language is, it would be made even more effective were it to be translated into an actual imagewhich is, after all, what the language is attempting to create in the mind of the viewer or reader. Byron knows, like all good writers, that that which is shown is more powerful than that which is merely described; but, because these images are so integral to the whole of the story, and because he does not have the power to create images like those that can be captured on film, Byron must resort to descriptive passages that suggest the visions in his mind, when in fact he would like to show the audience something.
There are many other examples of descriptive language in the text that prove my point, but I trust that these will suffice. All of the aspects of the play that I have discussed so far show that "Manfred" is a middle, often overlooked step on drama's path from theater stage to movie set. It shares many elements with traditional forms of drama, but is at the same time so revolutionary that it is often perceived as a failure, as somehow incomplete, despite its wealth of descriptive language and its thorough exploration of a grand theme. But, as Dick points out, "a screenplay is prefilmic, [and] it may contain material that [will] never [reach] the screen" (176). Byron had to include what some critics consider to be too much description, for the images that are conveyed to the audience through the words of the characters are integral to the movement of the play. Had it been an actual screenplay, these descriptions would have been transformed into actual images, just as the settings, such as the mountains and the castle, would have been transformed into a real castle, and real mountains. Weiss says that "[a] written play is so much a part of an acted play that changes in the one usually involve changes in the other, whereas a considerable change can be made in a script without altering its thrust, value, or intent" (40). Due to its emphasis on imagined visualizations and ideas, we can see that "Manfred" falls into the category of script or screenplay more easily than it does drama; it, too, could be interpreted in any number of ways by any number of filmmakers without altering its true spirit. In fact, its essence is all but unstageable in a theater; Byron realized this, and that is why he did not want it ever to be performed.
In the end, the reader realizes that Byron's play is something different from the traditional drama; it is reaching for something much grander and much more visually oriented than a staged play. Looking back on it from the perspective of a 20th century audience which is at least as used to seeing drama and action on the silver screen as on the theatrical stage, we can see that "Manfred", with its focus on larger-than-life settings, otherworldly effects, and dialogue that asks us to visualize as much as it advances the theme, would be perfectly suited to a film adaptation. Francis Ford Coppola, one of the most powerful and visually challenging directors of our time, had this to say about screenplays: "A screenplay, of course, is not a finished piece of art; it's only the blueprint for a film" (qtd. in Weiss 23). If "Manfred" is a failure, then, it is only a failure because Byron could not have imagined the medium for which his vision was ideally made; it is a failure only because it was too far ahead of its time.
4 May 1993
Byron, George Gordon Noel Byron, Baron. "Byron's Poetry". Selected and edited by Frank D. McConnell. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Dick, Bernard F. "Anatomy of Film". New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Weiss, Paul. "Cinematics". Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1975.
I am not a football fan. Not college, not the NFL, not even soccer. But as the end of the baseball season approached, some of the people in my baseball fantasy league suggested that we start a football league as well, and even though I felt like I would be nothing but an easy target for everyone else (all of whom are at least casual football fans), I agreed to do it because I enjoy interacting with my friends in this medium. Plus, there's no pressure like in baseball; if I happen to win, great, and if not, well, I wasn't expected to do well anyway.
In addition to this, some people at the office asked me about joining a football pool where you pick the winner for each game and then assign a probability that they will win based on the number of games that week (so this week there were 16 games, and you ranked the games from 0 to 15, 0 being the pick you're least confident about and 15 being the pick you're most confident about). After all the games are played, you add up the point total, and whoever has the most wins the pot for that week (there is also a pot that is given out for the winner of the entire season).
Initially I declined to participate in the office pool, but after I signed up for the fantasy football league, I figured what the hell. I really don't know anything about football, so I have to rely on pure data (in the form of odds, expert analysis, and other people's picks) to arrive at my picks for players in the fantasy league and winners/rankings in the office pool. I have no gut feeling about certain teams, no sixth sense that tells me that the analysts are wrongI'm just examining several pieces of data to get a decent probability and basing my decisions on that. Sure, I would like to win a little money in the pool and beat some of my friends in the fantasy league, but I'm also very curious to see if I can use the same data that is available to everyone else in these competitions to defeat people who know more about the sport than I do.
Today's Month of Content addition is a short fiction piece called "cube.doc" that I wrote for a project based on Borges' "The Circular Ruins". Although I will unveil a new site feature tomorrow as promised (the picture at the top with the coral will now be randomly selected from five or six different photos), I will not be posting anything else. The when the walls fell project will also be wrapped up tomorrow, concluding with a hopeful essay from a rabbi friend of mine.
He is inside a room that is a perfect cube. He does not know how long he has been there. There are no windows in the room, no clocks, no lights even. When there is light, it comes from the walls themselves, glowing with a cold fluorescence, like the interior of a photographer's lightbox.
Most of the time, he is surrounded by a darkness so complete that he cannot even see his hand held six inches from his face, like the darkness of a cave many hundred feet underground. There are also long periods of a faint iridescence that makes him feel like he is living in the liquid blue beneath a sheet of oceanic ice.
He talks to himself to keep from going crazy. Sometimes the wall absorb everything he says as soon as it leaves his mouth, so that he cannot even hear his own words. Other times a single whispered syllable will be magnified and echoed until the room reverberates with a cacophony of a thousand voices.
I record every word he says, even though I do not speak his language. His thoughts are colors and shapes that I paint onto panes of glass. He does not know how to sing.
I do not know why the man has been imprisoned, but I know that he is not free. I do not know why I must transcribe his existence, but I know that I must. I do not know who is in charge.
I was hoping that the media would be able to show some tactful restraint in covering the first anniversary of the 9.11 attacks, but alas, it's just not going to happen. As early as three weeks ago, I started seeing prominent stories in various media about the date, and over the past week the coverage has increased to an almost unbearable level. You can hardly see a magazine cover, cable news channel, or front page of a newspaper without instantly seeing some reference to the attacks; hell, you can't even watch a football game without being reminded. So I've been turning the channel, ignoring the magazines, and turning the paper face down to try to escape.
As unlikely as it seems, I have to believe that there are some actual human beings who work at these enterprises; surely they realize that we haven't healed from this yet, we're not ready to look back on it from a safe distance and examine the historical impact, because it's really not history yet. The conflict is ongoing, and if anything has been inflamed over the last year to the point where I think that future attacks on America are more likely than they were a year ago.
Here's my message to the media: it's still a raw nerve, people, and we don't appreciate you touching it just to increase your chances at winning an Emmy or a Pulitzer or whatever. You may get decent ratings, because most people won't be able to shut it off once they start watching. But they'll feel sick the next day, and so should you. A little part of most Americans died that day, and it's no fun having you force us to look at images from the scene of the murder. You were all wringing your hands over whether or not to air footage from the Daniel Pearl murder video; for many of us, watching those planes slam into the now-nonexistant towers over and over again is the same thing. We are watching people die, and believe it or not, we haven't been desensitized to it despite your repeated airings of the footage.
I think that the response from channels like the Food Network and A&E are the most appropriate I've seen from anyone in the media: they are just going to let their channels go dark for the time period when the attacks were taking place and either display calming images and music or scroll through the names of the victims. They aren't going to pretend like there's nothing special about the anniversary by broadcasting their normal programming, but neither are they going to try and capitalize on it in any way. If only human decency and common sense were requirements for Communications majors...
Yesterday I was tense from the moment I woke up, filled with a vague, unnerving dread that made me jittery and anxious. All the feelings that I felt a year ago were dredged up anew, and I wasn't really sure if I was going to be able to make it through the work day pretending that there was nothing unusual about the day.
There was to be a campus-wide moment of silence at 8:44, during which time the bell in Gilman tower would toll continuously. A group of people in our office were going to walk over together to a meditation labrinthe that had been set up in the Glass Pavillion, and I was planning to go with them. But on the way over, I realized that I just wanted to be alone. I found a nice quiet spot overlooking the new plaza in front of Levering, where I could see both the Glass Pavillion and Gilman tower, and tried to make some sense out of my feelings and emotions from the past year.
As the bell tolled, I thought I might cry, and I was really glad that I was alone. I could see a few other people standing in the plaza, looking up at Gilman tower, but they all had their backs to me. I don't know why we were staring at the tower, but we all were. Just before the bell stopped tolling, I saw a distant jet fly across the sky and disappear momentarily behind the tower before emerging on the other side.
And suddenly everything was okay. I felt a tangible sense of relief and release, and a weight that I had borne so long that I hardly noticed it anymore was instantly lifted. A year had passed. Life was going on.
I sat outside for 20 minutes more, watching the people come and go in the busy plaza, not thinking about anything in particular. Then I went inside and got back to work.
How to Make a Million Dollars: Part II in a Series
This idea is probably the weakest of the four in this series, but I still think it has some merit. This idea came to me after noticing an increasingly hard-to-ignore pattern in television broadcasting. When watching tv, I tend to flip to other channels during the commercials, but over the last year or so I have observed that, more often than not, every other show that I might flip to during a commercial break would also be on its own commercial break. It's not 100% foolproof, but it's been happening more and more, and since it wouldn't be that hard to apply an algorithm to Nielsen data to find out what clusters of shows certain groups of people would be most likely to watch, it wouldn't be that hard to sync up the commercials between those programs (for example, they might be able to predict that someone who was watching the Simpsons would be likely to also watch a movie on Comedy Central or a show on TNT, and might therefore be expected to switch to one of those shows during a commercial break during the Simpsons). This may be more true during the syndicated and prime time hours of programming, since the networks/syndicators have a lot of control over the length of each show's segments and the length of the commercial breaks between segments. Even though they are technically competing with each other, it's in all of their interests to try and sync these times, since they will slowly be able to teach the consumer that it is pointless to turn the channel because all they can expect to encounter on their backup programs is more commercials.
Given that this phenomenon is real, I envision a cable network that would exist exclusively to provide counter-programming to this wall of commercials. It would feature short, discrete units (30 seconds to 3 minutes), consisting of things like animated shorts, excerpts from comedy shows and stand-up comedians, news, weather, and yes, even some commercials, among other things. But the commercials on this network would be screened for entertainment value; if they weren't funny or original or interesting, they wouldn't make it onto the network, and even when they were accepted, they would only be run a limited number of times to keep them from getting old.
This would probably be impossible to do, since the big media networks whose ad revenue you're trying to devalue control a lot of the content that would be used to create this type of enterprise, not to mention the cable companies which would have to pick up this network for it to be a success. Still, I think that if something like this existed, most channel surfers would find themselves using it as their exclusive backup channel, and I'm sure there would also be a small group of diehards who would watch it for hours on end.
Today's Month of Content entry is one of the last papers that I ever wrote at Davidson for a class that focused on performances of Shakespeare's plays and on modern works that updated Shakespeare (like Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" or the topic of my paper, Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead").
Apparently I misunderstood the point of this assignment however, which, I was given to understand later, was more of a side-by-side analysis of a Shakespeare text (in this case "Hamlet") and its modern derivative. Instead, my paper focused more on the modern text, although it was implicit (to me anyway) that the issues in Stoppard's play were the same ones that Shakespeare was grappling with in "Hamlet".
But I guess I wasn't clear enough, because after a couple of glowing paragraphs of commentary from the professor about how good the writing was and how there was a revelation in every paragraph, she finished by saying that she still had to give me a C+ because I didn't follow the parameters of the assigment as closely as my fellow classmates had.
I was really angry about it at the time, first of all because it was the lowest grade I had received on an English paper in my entire history at Davidson, and second because I was teetering on the edge of the required average that I needed to receive my Honors degree. I had already completed and defended my thesis, and it would have really pissed me off if something stupid like that had kept me a fraction of GPA point away from getting Honors. But it didn't end up mattering, because I still got a good grade for the course and I ended up well above what I needed for the Honors designation on my diploma.
Anyway, it's pretty long, but the writing is much better than last week's essay, and hopefully more of you will be familiar with the source texts that I discuss. But you don't have to read it if you don't want to.
Choosing Not To Be: Inaction and Its Consequences in
Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead"
Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is primarily a play of questions. The main characters (hereafter referred to as Ros and Guil) question everything: where they are, why they are where they are, what they are going to do next, what they are supposed to do next, and ultimately, who they are. Through the use of questions and questioning, Ros and Guil attempt to define "reality", understand the meaning of choice, and recognize their place in the scheme of things. The famous question "To be or not to be" that is at the heart of the original Shakespearean text is here transformed by Stoppard into the post-modern query, "What does it mean to be?"
We arrive at this one central question by way of other related questions. One that is brought up in this play from the first act on is the question of what is "real" and what is not. Stoppard chooses to bring up this question by creating a tension between the "real life" (life as it is experienced outside the context of the theater stage) and the life of a character who is condemned to say the lines that have been written for him. Interestingly enough, Stoppard chooses the life of the character as more "real", as if the theater's bounds are closer to the actual limitations of life than the limitations that we as humans set on ourselves. In other words, those characters (most notably the Player and his troupe) who are aware of their limitations as characters are actually freer to act than those characters who are not aware of their roles. Just as those people who are unable or unwilling to accept certain limitations to their actions because of their humanity and mortality are ultimately those who end up being the most limited, so Ros and Guil are destined to walk through their roles without ever truly reaching the self-conscious freedom of the Player, who, despite his supposed limitations, is perhaps the most liberated of all of Stoppard's characters.
Ros and Guil, on the other hand, represent two aspect of what is most stagnant and repressed about the modern man. Ros has given up trying to understand the world around him and his place in it due to the overwhelmingly bewildering complexity of the universe and its workings; he would prefer to be buffeted about by fate, drifting from one place to another without any clear goal in mind. This is shown in his constant linguistic drifts (he often forgets Guil's questions by the time he gets around to answering them), and in his inability to distinguish himself from Guil (a confusion of identity due to his own lack of self-will). His attitude toward life is stated plainly in his speech on the boat:
I'm very fond of boats myself. I like the way they'recontained. You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at allthe question doesn't arise, because you're on a boat, aren't you? Boats are safe areas in the game of tag
players will hold their positions until the music starts.
I think I'll spend most of my life on boats. (101-102)
All he wants out of life is "safe area" where he doesn't have to "worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all"forgetting, of course, that in a boat, just as in life, action is required to keep from being dashed on the rocks.
Guildenstern, on the other hand, thinks too much about himself and his relation to the world around himso much that he is prevented from realizing his own power of choice and free will. He wants to be sure that he is doing the "right" thinghe must be totally sure of all the possible repercussions of his actions before he commits them. Of course, this leads to total inaction on his part, because part of taking action is taking a riskwhich Guil is unwilling to do. Like the Nazi death-camp overseers who insist that they were "just following orders", Guil prefers to let those with temporal power make all his decisions for him, for fear of making the wrong one himself:
we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etceterait would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone. (110)
Despite his philosophical attempts to understand his role in the universe, when it comes down to it, Guil is as indifferent as Ros. They are "little men" indeednot because of fate, but because they are unwilling to take action. Their fate is decided for them not because of who they are, but because of who they choose not to be. Elie Wiesel said that the opposite of love was not hate, but rather indifference. Ros and Guil take different approaches to understanding the events that they find themselves involved in, but the end result is the same: indifference. Indifference to events, to others, and finally to themselves. Together Ros and Guil are the epitome of the modern man who is unable to act on his own; two sides of the same coin, or, as the Player might say, "the same side of two coins" (23).
Stoppard starts us thinking about the tension between freedom and limitation in "real life" and on the stage from the very first conversation. The play begins with Ros and Guil tossing coins. "Heads", calls Ros every time Guil spins a coin, and heads appears over ninety times until Guil's bag is empty. Stoppard makes a point in his notes to say that the pair is "passing the time in a place without any visible character" (11). They are in a nowhere, a non-place where the laws of probability have been suspended. They exist out of time, space and physicsuntil the Player and his troupe show up. The law of probability returnsthe coin comes up tailsonly after the Player begins to give a play. In other words, the world of the stage is meta-fictionally presented as a "real" world, one that has the same appearance to the characters who inhabit it as our reality does to us.
Stoppard's intent in setting up the world that exists on the stage as an alternate reality that is just as important, just as "real" as the reality that we experience, is two-fold. The first is to give the Shakespearean maxim "All the world's a stage" a post-modern twistthe stage is a world itself. The second is to remind us that we, just as the characters in a play, are subject to certain limitations in life; there are more parallels between our own lives and actions and those of the characters up on stage than we might at first think.
These parallels are pointed out in many of the conversations between the Player, who, as a meta-conscious character, is freed to act according to his free will, despite his scripted lines, and Ros and Guil, who, as representatives of the overly-introspective modern man, spend the whole play talking instead of taking action. "But for God's sake what are we supposed to do?!" (66) questions Guil desperately. "Relax. Respond," answers the Player. "That's what people do. You can't go through life questioning your situation at every turn" (66). Which is true: if we, like Guil, went through life always wondering if our actions were absolutely right and necessary, then we would never be able to act at all. Or if, like Ros, we decided not to act because we relied so heavily on fate that we saw no need to ever do anything, then of course our indifference would lead to someone else always taking action for usjust as Hamlet takes action to change his imminent death at the end of this play. Ros and Guil let their limitations as characters (not acting because they cannot understand their condition fully despite constant questioning, or, conversely, knowing that they will never know and therefore simply not caring) limit their actions.
The Player, on the other hand, seems to be liberated from the bonds that prevent Ros and Guil from taking any action of their own precisely because of his awareness of his limitations as an actor and a character. Commenting on one of Guil's many self-doubting questions about he and Ros's purpose (at Elsinore and in the broader, philosophical sense), the Player responds:
For all anyone knows, nothing is [true]. Everything has to be taken on trust; trust is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions. What do you assume? (67)
This question is one of the Player's many attempts to raise Ros and Guil's consciousness about themselves and their limitations. By asking them what they assume, he is asking them to look inside themselves and define reality as they know it, define it subjectively and on their own terms, in order that Ros and Guil might better understand themselves by better understanding the way in which they perceive the world around them. Typically, however, Ros responds with someone else's words ("Hamlet is not himself"), and Guil spins the conversation off into a pointless attempt to define precisely what it means to not be oneself. Despite the Player's continued interventions in the conversation, Ros and Guil once again manage to avoid answering truly important questions and concentrate instead on the meaningless, Laurel and Hardy-esque misunderstandings of language that characterize so many of their conversations.
In fact, the only time that the Player truly seems at a loss for words is when Ros and Guil, who asked for a play from the Player and his company, betray the trust which the Player speaks so reverently of. Ros and Guil are somehow transported to Elsinore as soon as the play being given by the Player and his company begins, and therefore miss the play that is being staged expressly for their benefit off in the non-descript shadow land where we found them at the beginning of the play. When the Player shows up at Elsinore to fulfill his role in "Hamlet", he is angry, almost out of control, and yet strangely vulnerable, almost helpless in the face of Ros and Guil's abandonment of the play: "You don't' understand the humiliation of itto be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viablethat somebody is watching" (63). The lack of an audience creates a rupture in the faith that holds together the universe as he knows it. He realizes the importance of an audience to his existence, and is shocked that Ros and Guil could so casually abandon him and his company to the oblivion of an empty theater.
Whisking Ros and Guil off to Elsinore at the start of the Player's play serves another purpose as well. When Ophelia first enters, signifying the entrance of "Hamlet" into Stoppard's text, we are not sure whether the events on stage should be considered "real" (i.e., real to Ros and Guil's point of view) or whether they are part of the play being given by the Player and his companyor both. This sudden, unannounced transition effectively blurs the line between the Player's play within a play, Shakespeare's text, and Stoppard's play, a device which Stoppard uses throughout "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" to remind the audience of the lack of clearly defined boundaries between the events on stage and reality.
Another way in which Stoppard tries to convince us that the world of the stage is at least as real as the world as we experience it is by physically confining Ros and Guil to the stage. Although we are never sure if they are quite conscious of the fact that they cannot leave the stage (a physical representation of their inability to accept or understand their limitations as characters), there are times when, if they would only pay attention, they would be able to figure it out. For instance, at one point (page 86), they are ordered by Claudius to go and find Hamlet. They decide to split up, but each time they approach the edge of the stage, they do not exit, but rather retreat back to the middle. This could be read in two ways: one, the author is preventing them from leaving; or two, they are unable to leave because off stage, and without an audience, they do not exist. Either way, they remain blindly unaware of their physical limitations.
Their imprisonment bears some allegorical parallels to our own condition as humans, however. They are never able to leave the stage, just as we are unable to escape from this mode of existence into some other (until death, anyway). Ros and Guil are ever in each other's company, which can be seen as a parallel of our inability to escape from our consciousness, the inner "I", the voice with which we have our conversations about ourselves. This parallel is further strengthened by the fact that Ros and Guil function as foils for one anotherneither would seem complete without the other to compliment him.
Stoppard brings up these themes for several reasons. First, he wants us to understand that the limitations placed on characters can be seen as close parallels of some of the limitations placed on us as humans. And he does this to remind the audience that, like the actors who require both the faith and belief of an audience in order to exist, so we too require each other's faith that there is some purpose to our actions. Without the context of human society to respond and react to our actions as individuals, everything would soon seem pointless. Without the possibility of our actions and words communicating something to someone else, we would no longer believe that there was any meaning behind our actions, since without a society to react to them, our actions (or inactions) would seem to have no consequences, and therefore no real purpose. Without the faith of a community in which to explore ourselves through our actions and words, we would become like actors without an audiencelost and meaningless without a context for our actions.
Language and its uses and meanings is another theme that Stoppard explores in the play. Like the characters, language is the means by which we explore ourselves and our role in the scheme of things, as well as the way that we communicate with others and establish the faith that sets the context for actions. Like the characters on the stage, language is our only "way of knowing reality", a tool that allows us "to pass from the stage of implicit, often blind beliefs [the trust between the actors and the audience that is so cherished by the Player] to an awareness and acceptance of degrees of probability from which we can choose and act" (Makay and Brown, qtd. in Zivanovic 47). But language can only achieve these ends if properly utilizedand it is this utility that Ros and Guil have such trouble with.
Their use of language is often self-defeating, or at least stagnant; they seldom end up knowing any more about themselves or their situation at the end of a conversation than they do at the beginning, even when they are being prodded by a meta-conscious character like the Player, who is trying to raise Ros and Guil's own self-awareness by bringing them to a greater understanding of language and its role in the formation of human community and trust. As Zivanovic points out:
Their favorite means of "communication" is the most doomed to failure: it does not ask questions and give answers about meanings, it does not give answers at all, it simply requires questions. In this game of circular dialectic, questions are met with questions: whoever answers with a statement, repetition, non sequitor, or with a rhetorical question loses. The prohibition of the rhetorical question provides a good deal of irony and insight into the futility of this game in any effort towards awareness. (51)
In other words, they actually enjoy circular dialogue which leads them nowhere but back into the dead end of themselves and their lack of understanding. Or as Zivanovic says: "Inherent in the rules [of both the game and the way that Ros and Guil look at the world] is the inability to gain answers" (51).
William E. Gruber also comments on Ros and Guil's constant misinterpretation of other people's language as well as their own. He realizes that in some ways it is a comic device, a post-modern, confused twisting of the artful wit of Shakespeare's characters (who, incidentally, remain linguistically superior to Ros and Guil throughout the play). But there is something deeper and more sinister about their inability to use language as a tool for instead of a barrier to communication:
the courtiers' inept mishandling of language does not long remain a comic malapropism, but bends
with a crookedness that is straight. Both twisted syntax and twisted logic are appallingly true: wherever they areon boats, on the road, within a courtit is the fate of Ros and Guil never to be. (298)
This analysis brings us to another of the play's questions: "grappling with the concept of death as a state of negative existence" (Gruber 298). As Zivanovic points out, "the title informs us from the moment we read it
the [Ros and Guil] are dead" (55). this fact point not only to their eventual "deaths" at the end of the play, but also to their constant state of non-being during the play due to their unwillingness to choose, to take action. As Gruber points out, they are like the souls in the Vestibule of Hell in Dante's "Inferno""desperately pursuing .. [anything] that might ultimately give them human shape, human meaning" (300). They "have eschewed choice and action so their lives have no meaning" (Zivanovic 55-56); their inability to choose put them outside of the context of human understanding, exiles them from the human community that is build on trust. Like Dante's lost souls who are not even allowed to enter Hell proper, but must remain forever outside of it, Ros and Guil are not even granted proper theatrical deaths; they merely fade from view at the close of the play.
This all brings us back to the original question"To be or not to be"and Stoppard's post-modern counterpart: "What does it mean to beor not to be?" The post-holocaust opposite of hateindifferencecan also be read as inaction, both of which are demonstrated by Ros and Guil at the crucial moment in the text when they have their last chance to make a difference through meaningful action and truly enter into a state of being. This moment occurs when they open the sealed letter and discover that they are taking Hamlet to England to meet with his doom. Instead of taking action to insure that Hamlet is not killed, instead of doing something to prevent his unwarranted demise, the two merely rationalize away their responsibility toward his (as both friends and in the broader sense that respects Hamlet's humanity). Their excuses are eerily like those of the Nazi soldiers who killed the Jews during the Holocaust and of the onlookers in Poland and France who allowed the Nazis to commit their actions. Guil takes the soldiers' position, rationalizing that he is "just following orders", and therefore his personal responsibility toward Hamlet is removed and transferred to "fate" and "kings" (110). Ros, on the other hand, takes a typically non-interventionist stance, saying that it must be "for his own good" (111), a defense that was used by many of the villagers whose towns were transformed by the Nazis into death factories.
However, their inaction does not lead to Hamlet's demise, but rather their own. Hamlet takes action to keep himself alive and replaces the letter ordering his death with one that orders Ros and Guil's. By choosing not to save Hamlet, they have actually chosen not to save themselves. The Golden Rule also receives a post-modern twist: Ros and Guil are done unto exactly as they have done unto others. Even at the end, when they read the new letter and realize that they are the ones to be put to death, Ros and Guil do not protest, but merely continue in their state of non-being and inaction until their "deaths", in which they simply fade from our sight. Finally we realize that Ros and Guil were "so tied to inaction and orders, [that] they ultimately accept their last [order] commissioning their own death" (Zivanovic 54). It is the opposite of suicide: self-annihilation through lack of choice and action.
So what is Stoppard trying to tell us about post-modern existence through the lives and words of his characters? I have already pointed out how I think he goes to great lengths to show how the limitations placed on characters in a play are not all that different from those that are placed on the audiences by virtue of being human, or at least how the distinctions between what happens on the stage and what happens in "reality" are often not all that far apart. And this comparison is given even more credibility in light of the philosophical discussions on blame and responsibility that were triggered by the Holocaust, especially when we consider that a Holocaust-like triptych is established in the last scene: Ros and Guil are equivalent to the soldiers and onlookers who, even if they did not directly cause the deaths of the Jews, also did nothing to prevent it; and Hamlet in the role of innocent victim who is ordered killed by a powerful leader.
Stoppard is trying to tell us that our uncertainty about what is "right" and what is "wrong" is the normal human condition, and that it should not prevent us from deciding what we think is right and taking action to keep bad things from happening. Ros and Guil broke the trust of the human community when they refused to save Hamlet, or at least give him the information that would allow him to save himself. In order for the members of the audience to keep from repeating their mistake, Stoppard shows the personal consequences of inaction by having Hamlet take action against Ros and Guil because of their inaction on his behalf. In so doing, Stoppard "assert[s] a view of human activity that stresses men's ultimate responsibilitywhether prince or actor or lackeyfor what they do, and so for who they are" (Gruber 308). As the Player says, "[u]ncertainty is a normal state" (66). But it should not prevent action on behalf of a fellow human, and, reflexively, oneself.
2 May 1993
Gruber, William E. "'Wheels within wheels, etcetera': Artistic Design in 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'". "Comparative Drama" 15 (1981-1982): 291-310
Stoppard, Tom. " Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1967.
Zivanovic, Judith. "Meeting Death Already There: The Failure to Choose in Stoppard's ' Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'". "Liberal and Fine Arts Review" 1 (1981): 44-56.
It's Monday, so it's time for another Plug review. Today we have the Drive-By Truckers' "Southern Rock Opera", a two-disc concept album that explores the recent history of the south using Lynyrd Skynyrd as a focal point. I know, it sounds bizarre, but it's really a great record.
While surfing around looking for web sites on Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force (from their Adult Swim lineup), I tried to click on a link to an Angelfire site that turned out to be dead. Instead of the standard 404 message, however, I was greeted with the following:
If someone makes a webpage and gives the wrong URL, does it really exist?
I thought that was pretty amusing, so I hit the refresh button to see if there were any others. Turns out, there were at least 30. Here are some of the other good ones:
If you're reading this, it means this page is no more. It's probably not your fault.
Apparently, this page is not compatible with any browsers.
We didn't do it.
Your lucky numbers for today: 4, 0, 4.
If at first you don't succeed, type, type again.
If you had a nickel for each time you hit an incorrect URL, you'd be 5 cents richer right now.
You're disappointed? Mom wanted us to be a doctor.
'I remember when the internet only had a few pages, and they all worked' - 'Sure, Grampa...'
If true happiness can only be achieved through a state of nothingness, you're going down the right path.
It doesn't seem like that big a deal, but when I find little things like this, especially on a site from a big company like Angelfire, it makes me feel a little more optimistic about the future of the internet, because it reminds me of the early days when everything on the web was handmade by a single person, and there were funny little things like this on almost every site (not error pages necessarily, but hidden nuggets that you almost invariably discovered by accident while exploring a site). Since the corporate takeover of the web, quirky little bits of personality have been increasingly hard to find on sites, even on the sites of companies that wouldn't exist without the internet. I see something like this and I know that somewhere behind all the servers and high speed pipelines and oppressive policies, there is a person just like me who probably worked unpaid overtime for a few nights so he could add a human touch, his own personal mark, to his company's site. Whoever you are, I just want you to know that we appreciate it.
Oh, and by the way, if you haven't watched Aqua Teen Hunger Force yet, you really should. One of the funniest cartoons I've ever seen. And the theme song from Schoolly D is quite possibly the best theme song ever (although the ones from Sealab 2021 and Mission Hill are pretty good, too).
Today's Month of Content entry is another poem from the Borges project entitled "lines". It still feels kind of awkward to me, because it's not really completely my own creation, but rather a semi-failed experiment in recombination. What I did was collected lines from opera, poetry, television, movies, music, and books, and used them to create an entirely new work. Sometimes the lines are taken from what are considered to be high forms of art, like canonized novels and opera, but a lot of times they are from cheesy pop culture sources. This was a concept that I had been thinking about for a while, and I think it could be polished up and made a little more coherent, but this is the version that was used in the project, so that's what I'm posting here.
Below the poem itself is a source document, listing the artist and work from which each line was taken and sometimes a short explanation of its meaning. These source descriptions were also used in the Borges project. At one point I was going to expand the source descriptions significantly into a "Pale Fire" type text, but I just couldn't get it done by the project deadline.
john webster was one of the best there was
the universe is shaped exactly like the earth
a way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun
round and round, what comes around goes around
so certain are you
who is our enemy?
what are we fighting for?
nie wieder, nie wieder
isn't it pretty to think so?
at five-thirty in the morning, the runners are already out
and because the road was once a river, it is always hungry
in the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket
i'll be back
like a white shocking wire, when she smiles
it is ridiculous to mention even
the snow falling endlessly in the winter night
he did not touch it
we were standing at the water's edge
wondering about the road ahead
i don't want to get over you
you're a looper
life is water that is being drawn off
what has been is what will be
the earth is not an echo
a morse code message sent from me to me
john webster was one of the best there was
john webster was one of the best there was
Echo & the Bunnymen
"My White Devil"
John Webster was a playwright working mostly in the early 15th century. He was famous for two tragedies, "The White Devil" (1612) and "The Duchess of Malfi" (1623). These works are regarded as the best examples of Elizabethan tragedy behind only Shakespeare's, but some modern scholars think that you can trace virtually every line in Webster's plays to another source (as opposed to Shakespeare, who merely borrowed old plots).
the universe is shaped exactly like the earth
The Moon and Antarctica
A reference to the scientific belief that space is a curved surface.
a way a lone a last a loved a long the riverrun
Circular line from Finnegan's Wake (the line that is both the first and the last line of that circular book).
round and round, what comes around goes around
"Round and Round"
Out of the Cellar
A crude modern reference to the Wheel of Fate imagery that was prevalent in Medieval literature and poetry; also consistent with Karma.
so certain are you
Empire Strikes Back
who is our enemy?
what are we fighting for?
translated by Dan McGlaun
The Ring Cycle
Act III, Scene III
nie wieder, nie wieder
"A Serious of Snakes"
The Ideal Copy
German phrase meaning "never again", taken up as a rallying cry against the Nazis and the Holocaust in the decades following Hitler's attempted genocide of the Jews. A declaration against circularity.
isn't it pretty to think so?
Last line from The Sun Also Rises
at five-thirty in the morning, the runners are already out
and because the road was once a river, it [is] always hungry
The Famished Road, p. 1. In original text, bracketed "is" was "was".
in the hush your heart sounds like a black cricket
The World Doesn't End, p. 17
i'll be back
Arnold Schwarzenegger line from a number of his movies.
like a white shocking wire, when she smiles
"my girl's tall with long hard eyes"
it is ridiculous to mention even
"Teddy", Nine Stories
Last line of Teddy's diary.
the snow falling endlessly in the winter night
he did not touch it
Jorge Luis Borges
Line from the exact center of "The Circular Ruins"
we were standing at the water's edge
wondering about the road ahead
Purgatorio, Canto II:10-11
Translated by Mark Musa
i don't want to get over you
"I Don't Want to Get Over You"
69 Love Songs
you're a looper
"Ballad of Ray Suzuki"
Up a Tree
Reference to circularity, this time in the context of making music with samples, but it could also apply to the circular nature of space, history, etc.
life is water that is being drawn off
what has been is what will be
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (on which the title of The Sun Also Rises is based)
the earth is not an echo
Leaves of Grass, "To Think of Time", line 72
a morse code message sent from me to me
Death Cab for Cutie
"I Was a Kaliedoscope"
The Photo Album
john webster was one of the best there was
Echo & the Bunnymen
"My White Devil"
A quick follow-up from Doug on my "lines" poem from yesterday (the Ian he refers to is Ian McCulloch, the singer for Echo & the Bunnymen):
Really liked "lines"the ironic thing about "My White Devil" is that Ian cribbed the opening lines of the song from a paper his then-girlfriend had written for a class on Webster.
Interesting. I'm beginning to believe that I am either not as smart as or much smarter than I think I am, and that, either way, Doug is a genius whose pop culture knowledge continues to oustrip my own.
For the Month of Content, I'm supposed to introduce a new feature to the site today. This is a relatively minor and incomplete addition, but one that follows in the footsteps of my CD collection: I've decided to post the contents of my personal library to the site.
Today I am launching it with only two bookcases of my books, but I will add more in the coming weeks (I have another bookcase or two and several boxes that I recently brought back from Wilmingtonfriends of mine will notice a current lack of Paul Auster; I have just about everything of his). The authors are in alphabetical order, but aside from that I haven't really settled on a structure. Sometimes multiple works by the same author are listed in the order they were published, and sometimes alphabetically. Someday I'll probably settle on a system, as well as add the publication dates, but for now I just want to get the basics up.
How to Make a Million Dollars: Part III in a Series
This is the idea that is probably closest to my heart because of my fondness for my time as a stage manager with a local theater, which was the inspiration for this idea (that, and the mind-numbingly stupid and hostile relationships that seem to exist between the executives and ordinary workers in large coporate environments). This idea came to me after years of hearing about these management training/corporate bonding/team building retreats that executives force all their peons to attend in the interest of creating corporate harmony increased efficiency through teamwork and cooperation.
Most of the things these retreats purport to teach are things that I actually learned while stage managing several plays with a local theater years ago. In the theater, the customer really is the most important thing: no matter what's going wrong backstage or who is pissed off at who, the entire troupe, from the actors on stage to the lighting, sound, costume, and makeup people backstage, has to pull it together and put on a good show. It is a terrible feeling to lose an audience, who will forgive mistakes but not bickering and finger-pointing. When the lights go up, everything else is forgotten until the show is over; even when tempers flare backstage during a production, no one ever let's it affect what's going on in front of the audience. To quote Shakespeare, the play's the thing.
A big part of learning to really be part of a team is learning how to be flexible and pick up someone else's slack. If an actor is having a problem with his costume, you don't make the audience wait for you to call the costumer to fix it: you just fix it yourself. The same goes for the actors onstage. If someone forgets their lines, you don't just stand there staring at them and waiting for them to do their part. You cover for them, either by reminding them of their lines or just moving on to the next bit of dialogue. There is no rigid hierarchy that has to be followed at all times: everyone has to be able to do every job, at least a little bit, and you all have to look out for each other. Because if something gets screwed up, the audience won't just blame an individual. They'll blame the whole production, from the theater manager to the backstage runners to the set designers. You all suffer if the play doesn't go well, and you can all take pride in the audience's applause when you do things right; they are applauding for you, even if they never saw your face or read your name in the program.
Businesses should be run the same way. There needs to be a loose hierarchy, of course, but people need to learn to stretch beyond their specified duties when the situation calls for it, and the people in charge need to learn that one of the most brilliant things a manger can do is step aside and let the most qualified person do the job. You still need to have the corporate equivalent of a director, actors, backstage support staff, etc., but you also need to recognize that the guy doing data entry, if he's doing a great job, is just as important as the executive vice president in charge of the division. Like a theater audience, customers don't care how a company is organized, who's in charge of who, and which individual screwed up. All they care about is having a good experience with that company and their products. And if they have a negative experience, they blame the whole organization, and everyone in that organization suffers.
You can probably see where this is going. I think that people would actually learn something about working with each other and putting the customer first if they were sent to a week or two long camp or retreat where a division or unit of a company had to put on a play together, including at least three performances in front of a paying audience. It might be useful to have people take on roles that were similar to the ones they occupy in the company, but it might be even more instructive to switch things up, so that the secretary would be the star, the manager would be a stagehand, and grunt-level workers were stage managers, directors, and producers. I can see something like this being trendy enough to attract a lot of coporate clients, but unlike most of these things, I think it would actually teach the participants something about working together as a unit to produce a satisfying experience for their customers.
I don't really remember writing the paper that I posted this week, but I suspect that it was originally a draft that I had prepared for my thesis, which at one point was going to cover several of Auster's books, but which in the end only dealt with the New York Trilogy. It feels like a draft, anyway. There are lots of awkward analogies, and several occasions when I wasn't really being clear about what I wanted to say.
It's not terrible, though, and in some ways the ideas that I explored in my thesis are even more prevalent in this work than they are in the Trilogy. I don't know what the original title was, but I'm sure it was much better than the one I've come up with now (I used to make them up right before I turned them in, and didn't necessary save that part to a file).
On another note: I just want everyone to know that, due to the rapidly increasing obsolescence of my technology, I have had to print out these papers on a ten year old typewriter and then retype them by hand on my computer. So at least try to appreciate that aspect of my efforts.
Art and Life in Paul Auster's "Moon Palace"
Paul Auster's "Moon Palace" investigates the differences between art and reality by exploring the limits of several types of artistic media. One of Auster's main themes, which recurs in this work, is the question of what happens to the writer when he runs out of ink and paper, or to the painter when she runs out of colors. This novel includes a painter, a writer, and a literary critic who use their vocations to explore the nature of existence and to provide some sort of organization for their own personal experiences. But each of these men reach a point where they have to deal with some unknown about themselves, so that the question each of them must ask themselves is: which is more important for understanding the world around them, art and artifice or the facts of reality?
The dilemmas inherent in this question are further complicated by the fact that the three main characters are a grandfather-father-son trio who do not know that they are related when they first meet. Much of each of their work focuses on searching for the lost father figure, or at least trying to understand the world from the point of view of the fatherless child. In addition, the work of all three is inn some way an attempt to understand what it means to be an American, so that in the end their work is not only a search for literal biological fathers, but for the mythical forefathers of our nation as well.
The main character and narrator, Marco Stanley Fogg, sets up many of the archetypes and themes that will be explored in "Moon Palace" when he describes his childhood and young adulthood in the beginning of the novel. One of Auster's most important themes is that of the journey or quest, which in this novel is also a metaphor for one's art and one's life as a journey into the self, both historical and personal. Uncle Victor, Fogg's mother's brother who takes over his care after Fogg's mother is hit by a bus while he is still a boy, is a substitute father figure and is responsible for many of Fogg's views on the world. He likes "to concoct elaborate nonsensical theories about things" (Auster 6), which usually involves punning on a word to produce an alternate meaning; it is a game of finding the hidden inner meanings to the symbols of outer reality. For example, he says of Fogg's name that "it proved that travel was in [his] blood" (Auster 6) because it is composed of the names of three famous explorers or travelers: Marco is from Marco Polo, Stanley is after the explorer who found Dr. Livingstone, and Fogg is after Phileas Fogg, the main character from Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days".
Uncle Victor's interpretation of Fogg's name serves several purposes. First, it stresses the theme of the journey which will become more and more prevalent as the book progresses. It also sets up the context from which Fogg will view the world, that is, as a place where things and words are symbols for something deeper. Fogg is always attempting to discover all of the alternate meanings of words, just as Uncle Victor did, in order to reach the deeper truth or truths that lurk behind the outer reality of the word. This in turn leads to the idea that books and films are the keepers of words and, though they are works of art, can and should form part of the structuring and re-structuring that goes on when one remembers one's life. In fact, the legacy that Fogg inherits from Victor is composed entirely of books, both as physical objects and transmitters of ephemeral ideas. There is an almost endless list of books that Fogg mentions in his narrative, which therefore leads us to believe that they are important to him; many of these, not coincidentally, are travel accounts or fictional books about traveling.
The most important idea that Victor passes down to his nephew, however, would have to be the idea that he puts forward when he puns on Fogg's first two initials, "M.S." This is an abbreviation for manuscript, about which Victor says: "'Every man is the author of his own life
. The book you are writing is not yet finished. Therefore, it's a manuscript. What could be more appropriate than that?'" (Auster 7). This idea that each man's life is his ultimate work of art is one that colors the way that Fogg sees the world, and as such influences not only the events that happen in "real time" in the novel (i.e., it influenced him while the events in the book were taking place), but also taints the recollections which form the narrative of "Moon Palace".
Fogg's ideas on the interaction of life and art are further modified when he meets Thomas Effing, an old man who hires Fogg to do a variety of things, including reading books out loud, pushing Effing's wheelchair through the streets of New York and describing what is there, and listening to Effing's life story in order to write his obituary before he dies. Effing's very name is a small creation in the extended work of art into which he has shaped his life. Thomas comes from Thomas Moran, an American painter wh was with some of the expeditions that were mapping out the American west and the first man to paint things like the Grand Canyon and the Great Salt desert, and Effing is shorthand for "F---ing", which is an abbreviation for fucking: "Thus, he was Thomas Effing, the man who had fucked his life" (Auster 185). Which, figuratively, he has: due to a series of accidents and mishaps, he was able to "kill" his former self, the painter Julian Barber, and recreate a new identity as Thomas Effing.
Effing teaches Fogg much about the nature of words and the purpose of art, which feed into Fogg's personal development and influence the formation of his own character and way of viewing the world. First, as a painter, Effing forces Fogg to redefine the way that Fogg looks at the world. On their walks, Fogg must describe everything that is going on around them to Effing, who is blind and can no longer see for himself. At first Fogg is at a loss, because he does not know how to describe things by anything other than their common names, such as "brick", "building", or "car". He does not see "the mutability of those things, the way they changed according to the force and angle of the light, the way their aspect could be altered by what was happening around them" (Auster 122). After Fogg reaches this crucial initial level of understanding, Fogg can see farther and farther: even "the same brick is never really the same. It was wearing out, imperceptibly crumbling under the effect of the atmosphere
. All inanimate things were disintegrating, all living things were dying" (Auster 122). Effing forces Fogg to become an artist who paints with words, and teaches him to strip things down to their unique essentials until Effing is able to use Fogg's words "to construct an image on the basis of a few hints, to feel his own mind traveling toward the thing [Fogg] was describing for him" (Auster 123).
This experience does two things for Fogg: first, it makes him understand the ever-changing and hence indescribable nature of the world, while it simultaneously forces him to attempt to describe it despite the impossibility of that task. This is the very definition of an artist: one who tries to capture the essential core of a thing on canvas or paper, to capture a fleeting moment in time. But instead of capturing things in some more permanent medium, Fogg must paint with his voice, so that his work becomes a form of art which vanishes the moment that it is created. This in turn underlines a fact about art that many artists forget: art, though it may outlast its creator by centuries, will also eventually decay and vanish. The fact that Fogg must use his energy to create a work of art that will disappear even before it is finished purifies the artistic process, and makes it into something that is done for its own sake rather than for money or fame.
While recounting his life story for Fogg, Effing gives Fogg a concrete example that illustrates tangibly his views on the purpose of art. After a series of accidents, both good and bad, Effing ends up in an old hermit's cave by himself, where, free from the constraints of an audience, Effing proceeds to paint the best pictures of his career: "The true purpose of art was not to create beautiful objects, he discovered. It was a method of understanding, a way of penetrating the world and finding one's place in it" (Auster 170).
Effing's final lesson to Fogg comes during the dictation of his life story and the events that immediately follow the complete of his obituary. Effing's life story demonstrates how he has taken artistic control of his life; after finding money in a cave occupied by outlaws, Effing chooses a new name and devotes himself to becoming the eccentric character that Fogg knows him as. Every action that Effing performs, every word that he says, is calculated to amuse, annoy, or mystify his audience. His art has now become his life: "He would cast out intentionally ambiguous signals and then revel in the uncertainty they caused, adamantly refusing to divulge the facts" (Auster 109). Due to his manipulations and tricks, Fogg does not even know whether or not Effing is really blind, despite the fact that he has been working with Effing for several hours each day for months. Effing's final artistic creation is his manipulation and control of the people around him, to the extent that even those closest to him do not know what or who he is. He becomes the essence of ambiguity, which is the essence of art itself. He is his own ultimate creation.
Effing caps off this creation by constructing his own death. He picks a day (May 12) and decides that this is the day that he will die. He then takes twenty thousand dollars out of the bank (to equal the twenty thousand that he had taken from the outlaws, who had in turn stolen it from a bank) and then spends the next two weeks giving it out in fifty dollar increments to strangers on the street. He sets this up as a work of art by referring to his obituary as a "self-portrait" (Auster 197) and his plan for his death as his "masterpiece" (Auster 200). During one of these excursions to give out the cash, Effing and Fogg get caught out in the rain. As a result of his drenching, Effing catches pneumonia, lingers for a few weeks, and finally dieson May 12. Though it may just be a coincidence, it emphasizes a basic tenet of all human understanding that most people forget: everything that we consider ordered and rational might also be just coincidental. All of the patterns and correlations that our civilization treats as if they are unassailable laws could also be non-existent; they are only there because we think that we see them there, not because they actually are. Just as we now laugh at those who believed that the sun revolved around the earth, so too might some future society be amused by the patterns that we see in the universe.
However, this illustration is not meant to show the futility of trying to make sense of the universe. On the contrary, it is meant merely to remind us of the fact that everything is unstable and that our point of view is too limited to include the whole universe in all its multiplicity. Instead of belittling our beliefs, this serves to underscore the faith of those who try to make sense out of the world around them. To know that anything we believe might one day be proven false, or even to have no real proof to show for our beliefs, and yet to believe anyway, is the ultimate demonstration of faith that there is some order behind the universe. Indeed, it is the very definition of faith.
The next important figure to enter Fogg's life is Solomon Barber, Effing's son from his first life who he created the night before he left his wife forever. Fogg contacts him in order to inform him first of the existence of his father, and then to tell him of his father's death and Barber's subsequent inheritance. They eventually meet, and, due to the fact that Barber realizes that he is Fogg's unknown father, become friends. Barber contributes two works of art to the text: the first is the novel that he wrote as a teenager about his own unknown father called "Keplar's Blood", and the second is his own personal narrative, which he recounts to Fogg after he tells Fogg that he is Fogg's father while laying in a hospital bed waiting to die.
These two stories are loosely intertwined, because the first is about Barber's attempt to deal with the unknown and absent father of his own life, while the second is the story of Fogg's unknown and absent father. One is a supposed solution to the mystery of the absent father, while the other is a definite answer. What is most interesting about Barber, however, is how he has chose t olive his life as a result of his experiences: he is a literary critic and historian, and all of his work has focused on explaining and exploring the territory that he originally mapped out the adolescent novel that was really a way for him to understand his relationship with his father. In effect, Barber has spent his whole life trying to fill the void that was left by his father, so much so that this void has become an integral part of his identity.
Fogg has had similar experiences in his own life. When Barber first reveals his true identity to his son, Fogg does not want to accept it: "For twenty-four years, I had lived with an unanswerable question, and little by little I had come to embrace that enigma as the central fact about myself" (Auster 295). "Moon Palace" is the text, like Barber's "Keplar's Blood", in which Fogg uses his individual imagination to create an art form that fills in the gaps left in his existence by the "real" world. The imagination is the source of all art, and in "Moon Palace" it also becomes the ultimate tool for creating it. Like the brush for the canvas or the pen for the paper, the imagination becomes the instrument by which the world is transformed and ordered. It is significant then that Fogg participates in some act of imagination with each of the three men who serve as father figures in his life: with Uncle Victor, Fogg plays "a game of inventing countries together, imaginary worlds that overturned the laws of nature" (Auster 6); with Effing, Fogg creates whole new worlds out of the everyday world around him when he describes things for Effing, not to mention the game with the umbrella that had lost its covering (another recurring image in Auster) that they played with a stranger on one of their walks; and with Barber, Fogg creates an illusory quest for the cave which holds all of Effing's desert paintings.
Given that Fogg believes that the "real" world is composed of symbols and signs that, when decoded, may lead to some deeper truth, and given that the personal imagination is the most important tool used in this process, what does this say about the book in terms of meta-fiction, or, more precisely in this case, meta-art? This book is told in the first person by an older man looking back on one of the most important years of his life, when he discovered the identities of both his father and his grandfather, and started to move into a true conception of his selfhood. It was a time of great turmoil for him, but one that led to, as Fogg stresses at both the beginning and end of his story, "the beginning of [his] life" (Auster 1). So the question becomes, did the works of art, both written and painted, influence Fogg's reactions and feelings at the time, or did he interpret the world around him according to those same feelings? In other words, did the art help Fogg to interpret the world around him, or did he interpret the art in such a way that it made sense out of the world for him? Which is the absolute, the art or the perceived reality?
A prime example of the fuzziness of the line between art and reality if Effing's story about his time in the desert. This was Effing's time of turmoil, similar to the year that Fogg recounts in "Moon Palace", when Effing literally redefined himself; he is remembering it from over fifty years in the past, and he has never told it to anyone before he tells it to Fogg. Effing's story is a little too perfect in some places to be believedhe seems to do no real wrong, which is a common device of the defensive selective memory. Fogg even says that "there were times when [Effing] did not seem to be remembering the outward facts of his life so much as inventing a parable to explain its inner meanings" (Auster 183). To further complicate matters, we are not hearing the story first-hand from Effing; we are hearing it as Fogg remembers it from many years in the past. In addition, since Effing would not let Fogg use a tape recorder and because the story was being told with an eye toward being published (as an obituary, but published for an audience nonetheless), we have several other filters in place. Fogg admits that while he is retyping his notes, he often "had to reconstruct passages almost entirely in order to remain faithful to their original meaning" (Auster 192). So even if Fogg had managed to write down every word exactly as Effing had said it, and if Effing had meant everything he said, we would still only be getting Fogg's interpretation of Effing's meaning. Add to this the fact that both men, when they recount this story are remembering it from decades before, and you begin to see the problems of trying to separate truth and art and reality into three separate categories. And this is all without considering that this is all contained within a self-proclaimed work of art and artifice.
The difficulty in distinguishing an absolute truth from an opinion becomes even more difficult when we take into account the "real" author of "Moon Palace", Paul Auster. He inserts his "real" life into this narrative in several ways, making it as much his story as the characters', by including many of the themes and some of the actual names and things from his other novels (such as Quinn's Bar and Grill, named after Daniel Quinn of "The New York Trilogy"). Auster also takes the passage on pages 137-40, where Fogg describes his impressions of Ralph Albert Blakelock's (an actual American painter) painting "Moonlight" almost verbatim from an article he published in the magazine ARTnews.
By including ideas in the novel that are unquestionably is own and placing them in the mouth of his first person narrator, Auster seems to be reminding us that this is not a "real" story involving "real" people and "real" events. And yet, because it exists in our heads after we have read it, it is somehow real. Or as Effing says: "There's no world, no land, no nothing. It comes down to that, Fogg, in the end it's all a figment. The only place you exist is in your head" (Auster 156). It is finally our minds, our imaginations, and our perceptions that matter, because these are the only things of which we can be sure.
Auster seems to be manipulating and toying with all these different levels of narrative and interpretation in order to remind us of the interpretations and manipulations that we apply to the world around use every minute of every day. "Moon Palace" is not trying to definitively answer the question of which is more real, art or reality, but is instead trying to show the malleable and subjective nature of both while exploring the ways in which they interact with and influence each other. Auster is trying to show how, in combination with the creative power of the individual imagination, art and reality work together to produce a coherent individual narrative about the world and our places in it. This book is not about trying to find an absolute truth about the world, either through artifice or facts, but is instead about exploring the ways in which we create both ourselves and the reality around us through the use of our imaginations. "Moon Palace" is an attempt to explain the process of change and transformation that we all undergo when we participate in the ultimate form of art: the art of living.
Auster, Paul. "Moon Palace". New York: Penguin Books, 1989.
The Month of Content is almost over, thank god. Today's entry is a Plug review of an album from one of the most compelling young artists in America, Conor Oberst. His latest with Bright Eyes, "Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground". is well worth picking up, especially if you found anything to love from "Read Music Speak Spanish", a great album by his rock band Los Desaparecidos that was released earlier this year.
You know, every weekend it's my plan to do all of the Month of Content entries so that I can be free to post them during the week while also writing my normal content for the site, but for some reason it just hasn't worked out that way. I always seemt to be working on the Month of Content stuff the night before I post it, which generally leaves me very little time to talk about the stuff that I normally talk about on this site.
And that holds true again today. The only thing I worked on this weekend was the new Plug review, and since that gets posted along with this entry, I don't have anything else stored up for the rest of the week. There's lots of stuff to tell you about Greg, Tori, my mom, etc., but I just don't have the energy to write about it now. But I'll try to work on it during my lunch hour tomorrow; I miss writing about my life.
The story below is the last piece that I wrote for the Borges project, and it is easily my favorite. It pretty much speaks for itself, so I'll just stop talking now and let you read it.
The Unfinished Bridge
The unfinished bridge already looks old. They stopped work on it a while ago, its funding a victim of complicated and unexplained political dealmaking. It just sits in the sky, blocking the sun and going nowhere. It runs parallel to the real bridge, which still seems perfectly serviceable and not that old. I don't know who decided we needed a new bridge in the first place.
Will the unfinished bridge have a name someday? Does the real bridge have a name now?
Sometimes I sit at the end of the unfinished bridge, my legs dangling between the rusted steel rods poking out from the end of the last section of concrete, and stare at the other half on the other side of the river. There is a fence up on the edge of the other side, to keep people from jumping off, I guess. I don't know why there isn't one on my side. I see teenagers gather over there sometimes, drinking and wearing traffic cones on their heads, and singing at the top of their lungs. They throw things over the side of the bridge and watch them fall into the water. I do this, too. The awkward tumble of a stone as it arcs through the air towards its inevitable plunk into the water is hypnotic. I can do it for hours, even when I'm not drunk.
I don't know why the cops never bother people hanging out on the unfinished bridge.
Someday they will finish the unfinished bridge, and then it will become the real bridge, while the real bridge will be needlessly deconstructed to make it unusable, even to bicyclists and pedestrians and fisherman. They will remove a slab of roadway from each end, leaving the middle an unreachable island of concrete and steel floating over the swamp-like river. But there is still much work to be done on the unfinished bridge: though the supports have been built, there is still at least a hundred yards of roadway that need to be laid. A hundred yards? Two hundred yards? I'm not good with distances.
The streetlights on the bridge don't work yet, so you can still see the stars at night.
When there are no teenagers on the other side, I sometimes take a decent sized rock and try to throw it like a discus to the other side. I spin until I'm about to collapse, and then let the rock go. I never see it land. I don't think it could reach the other span, but I don't know for sure. But I never hear it hit the water.
I wonder if you could jump a car across the unfinished bridge.
Sometimes I think about the men who built the unfinished bridge. Do they care that the bridge is unfinished? Does it matter to them that all their weeks and months of work, first pouring the concrete foundations in the middle of the river, then erecting the supports on those small islands of stability, and finally placing the slabs roadway atop the strangely elegant legs, have gone to waste? It would bother me, I think, if I had worked on it. It bothers me anyway.
If I had a job, I probably wouldn't think about the unfinished bridge so much.
Even when they complete construction on the unfinished bridge, it will still not be a real bridge. It will only become a real bridge when people begin to use it. It is real to me now, but it will become something else when people start to drive on it. Still, there is a part of me that wants to see the workmen return and finish their work on the bridge, even though it will be lost to me then.
So, just what has been going on in my life recently? Actually, not a lot, but there has been plenty of activity among my friends and family. So here's a recap.
Tori finally called me a week or two ago, and she seemed to like her roommates at Iowa pretty well. I still worry about the quality of the education she's getting therethe latest figures from U.S. News & World Report show that their acceptance rate is an ungodly 85%but hopefully there are other things about the experience that will help to make up for the relatively low standards there. Then again, the year's worth of credits that she transferred from Chicago equaled two years worth of credits at Iowa, which doesn't say much about even their own opinion of the quality of education they offer.
Two weekends ago, my mom was in DC for a conference, so we went down to meet her for lunch. I wasn't feeling well, so we didn't eat at any of the many Thai offerings surrounding her hotel, but instead ate at a little mexican place called "Chipotle's" that served made to order burritos, fajitas, etc. Their guacamole was really good, too. After that we took the metro down to the National Mall and spent a couple of hours at the newly renovated botanical gardens. There were some really cool partsthe catwalk that ran around the edge of the Victorian-style rainforest room, the orchid room, the medicinal plants roombut overall, I wasn't as impressed with it as I thought I would be. They're planning a significant addition in the near future that will create a large outdoor garden to go with their mostly-indoor current space, as well as adding a few more gardens to the current building, so I'd probably be willing to take another trip there in a year or two after they've had time to finish all of their construction.
After spending the day with my mom, we immediately drove back up to Maryland and met Angie and Greg for dinner. For those of you who don't know, Greg worked with me at CO2, and was let go about four months before the company more or less closed down (which was when I was let go). After a few months of unemployment, he ended up with a completely horrible firm that made him work long hours, treated him (and the rest of its employees) like garbage, and also had such banal clients that he wasn't even able to take comfort in knowing that he was building up his portfolio. He's been looking for a different job from the first week that he started there, and on Saturday night he told us that he had finally gotten one. It's not a big difference in pay, and it sounds like they will expect him to work some long hours, but it's closer to home for him (he lives in Pennsylvania, and this new job is in north Baltimore, whereas his old one was in the southern part of the city) and it looks like he will be able to do some higher quality work there. Plus, he'll be close enough that we should be able to have lunch every week or so.
Dad passed his first year of law school. I don't think I've written about this before, but he's been attending an online law program, and to make sure that you're the one actually doing the work, they make you fly out to California to take a test in person. If you pass that, you are allowed to continue with your distance learning. He's recently begun to get dissatisfied with medicinenot with the patients and the responsibilities they bring, but more with all of the administrative stuff that gets in the way of taking care of patientsso his tentative plan, as best we can tell, is to get a law degree so that he can consult on medical cases for law firms. It's an interesting idea, and I'm proud that he's still keeping his mind sharp by taking on such an enormous task so close to retirement, but he's worked really hard for a very long time, and part of me wants to see him take up a hobby or two and just enjoy himself and his time with Rachel. But if learning a new trade and continuting to work makes him happy, more power to him.
In other mom news, she was promoted to vice president earlier this summer, but they just made the official announcement last week, and I wasn't allowed to talk about it before. That's pretty remarkable too, because she has no formal business training. She started out as a registered nurse, got her masters in nursing and taught for a while, and then took a job as a relatively low-level administrator at a mental hospital. From there, she worked her way up the management ladder, ending up at a large for-profit hospice corporation and slowly earning promotions to her current position over the past ten years. It's weird, because I feel like the parent a lot when I'm around her, but she's clearly got a very different work personality, and it's pretty cool that she has been able to reach such a high position, especially given her lack of an MBA and the fact that she's a woman.
Let's see, what else? I think that about covers it. There's some interesting stuff going on at work, but it has to do with coworkers, about whom I generally don't write, and projects that I can't reveal yet. So I guess those stories will have to wait for another time.
Well, we knew this couldn't last forever. I've been pretty good about keeping on schedule for Month of Content releases since the initial delay that first week, but I'm going to miss my target today. I was going to announce a new siteaqws feature, a monthly QuickTime VR panorama, but I haven't gotten around to shooting it yet, and given that I've been planning this particular feature for months now, I might have to bump it back to a quarterly update rather than a monthly one.
We'll see. I'll try to go out and take a few this weekend, and post the first one next Monday, the last day of the month.
I've been a subscriber to Consumer Reports for a few years now, even though it's not really one of my favorite magazines. Sure, I use it as a guide every now and then when I'm making a major new purchase, especially if I'm buying a product type that I've never bought before (it helped us pick our new lawnmower and grill when we moved into our house a couple of years ago). But I find some of their reporting a little biased, especially when it comes to cars: you know they're always going to have nothing but good things to say about Hondas, and they always say the same inaccurate stuff about Saturns (my wife and I both own Saturns, as does my sister and several friends of ours, and my experience with my car has been nothing but a good one). They're so repetitive in that area that I could write you their review of Saturn's new modelsit's the same review they've been writing for the past twelve years.
Despite this, their back page, where they print examples of weird packaging or misleading product claims, is one of my favorite sections of any of the magazines I read, and it often makes the annual subscription price well worth while. This month they printed the funniest copy I have ever read, from an ad for a a Chinese-made kitchen appliance (I'm assuming that the copywriter was not a native English speaker):
Mode of Job for Multi-Chopper
In order that the article has minced could be perfectly cut, Knocked Vigorously on the bud Superior hand Opened.
The most or less great number of knocks determines the fineness of cup. The rotation of knives is made automatically and regularly.
For the cleaning, to pull the inferior bell and to release the recipient Superior. Well to rinse the machine, if possible to the running water. Re-assembly in Senses inverts. All parts metallic are executed in a materials has the test of the rust.
That took me about five minutes to type up because I was laughing so hard. It's like something you would find scrawled on the walls of a lunatic's cell, or the English translation of the Martian communiques in Mars Attacks!, or that videotape that the Japanese soap company sent Homer in the fishbulb Simpson's episode. But this is the kind of thing that makes my Consumer Reports subscription worthwhile, whether or not they actually help me in the product purchasing area.
How to Make a Million Dollars: Part IV in a Series
My last idea is partially stolen from the Iron Chef series and partially from the American Visionary Museum of Art's somewhat unothodox exhibition schedule (they only put up one show a year, closing down for a month in September to take down last year's show and put up this year's). But instead of pitting accomplished master chefs against one another, you would pit relative newcomers who are still trying to make a name for themselves, and you would let them compete for a whole year. It would take a lot of money, and it could probably only be done by someone who already has a lot of experience in the restaurant industry, but it would solve the problem of the latest trendy hangout only being trendy for a year or two and would also give young chefs a chance to gain an audience.
What you would do is find two relatively unknown young chefs with a strong vision for the kind of food they wanted to serve, give them each their own fully equipped kitchen in the same restaurant, and basically let them compete with one another for a year. At the end of a year, they would move on, and you would bring in two new chefs. I haven't decided how a lot of the details would work, and there is a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation throughout the year. Some weeks, each chef would develop their own menu, while in other weeks, one chef would get to select the menu and the other chef would have to prepare those dishes and try to put his own unique stamp on them, and then the other chef would get a chance to set the menu the next week.
I know that the decoration of the restaurant (and maybe even the name) would change from year to year, but I can't decide if each chef should get to decorate half the restaurant or if you would just try to find a new look that somehow fit both chefs' personalities each year. I don't think that it would be a competition in the sense that there would be points tallied and a formal victor would be announced at the end of the year, but presumably the competition would be fierce enough that the patrons and the food press would declare an informal winner.
There are a ton of things you could do with this format to keep it fresh, and the great thing would be that, just as people might be getting used to the food or the decor, the restaurant would purposely reinvent itself entirely. Everybody wins: young chefs get a chance to be exposed to a wider audience, the patrons get to keep coming back to the same restaurant over and over and yet still experience new dishes almost every week, and the restaurant owner could build a very loyal following among fickle diners by capitalizing on that very fickleness. This isn't an idea that I think could be pulled off by anyone, but in the right restauranteur's hands, I think it could be a real winner.
<sigh>. I've failed again. There is just no way that I could type in this final paper in one night, and as usual one night is all I had because I waited until the last minute. There's one content day left in the month, thoughI may not have done it on a strict schedule, but I swear I will finish out this Month of Content with all the content I had planned to post. And this last paper is worth the wait, I promise.
Finally, our long national nightmare is over. Today I post the final two installments in the Month of Content, and then tomorrow we can all return to normal entries.
The first thing I'm posting is a QuickTime VR that I took of my office at home. This is where I write almost everything that you read here, listen to music, play games, watch tv, etc. I'm usually doing at least two of these things at once, and it's not unusual for me to have the tv on with no sound, have a CD on, be playing a game, and be talking on the phone all at the same time. You don't get as good a sense of the room as I'd like, and I've never taken one is such close quarters before, so there are artifacts that I didn't anticipate, but it'll do for now (I'm going to redo it tomorrow on my lunch hour, so I might get better results and I'll also be able to remove that ad that is left in the file by the demo version I have at home). I was originally intended to do more of an outdoor shot, but the opportunity just never arose. I may replace this one with a better one at some point in the near future, or I may discontinue the experiment altogether. I just haven't decided yet.
The second thing I'm posting is the final entry in my papers from college series. This is, in a sense, the last paper I ever wrote, and it is easily the best thing I have ever handed in for a class. Sure, I wrote plenty more after this (all of the other papers I have posted were written the semester after this one, as was my thesis and all of my grad school work), but this was the one when everything was clicking. That class, a seminar on the literature of the holocaust (or shoah, as it is more frequently referred to by scholars), had a deep and long-lasting effect on me. It altered the way I looked at the world, and even the way I read books. It is still with me, and will always be.
I was worried that the professor wouldn't get it, but I knew I had hit my mark when he not only gave it an A (which he was notoriously stingy with, especially in high-level seminars) but also recommended that I enter it in the annual writing contest on campus. I did this, and won. That was something of a surprise to me; I knew it was a good piece of work, but I wasn't sure it would be accessible to people who hadn't studied the shoah.
Many thanks to Julie for typing most of this up for me. I just had far too much to do yesterday, and without her, there is no way this would have gotten done on time. I don't remember the title of this paper, but it's somehow fitting to post it without one. There are no hints as to what lies ahead, and nothing to sum up the work in a quick soundbite.
One last note: I normally post the results from my baseball league here on Mondays, but since the season is now officially over, I'm going to wait another day and post the final results for the league. Then it's on to football.
This year when I went home for Thanksgiving break, my family and I were invited to the opening night of our city's Festival of Trees. I have attended this event nearly every year since its start, and it is almost a part of the ritual of Christmas for me at this point. I was walking around with my little sister, holding her hand, and looking at all the trees. And then I saw them: six angels, dressed in white, hanging from the ceiling with fishing line. They were very thin; their heads, downcast and faceless.
And all I could see was the murdered Jews: the old men that my grandfather told me about, the ones that his artillery unit had discovered when liberating a Dutch town, hung at the last minute by a retreating S.S. unit; the mice on page 83 of "Maus I"; the concentration camp prisoners rising to the heavens on the cover of Eliach's "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust"; and the thousands more that we have heard and read about in our study of the Shoah. All of them condensed at that one moment in the form of those six angels hanging from the ceiling, and I spent the rest of the evening inside myself trying to figure out why.
This course has affected me in a very personal way: the incident at the Festival of Trees is just one of many examples that I could give to demonstrate how the Holocaust has not only invented new types in my mind (Greenberg's "instance of the Jewish sort") but also refigured the symbols and images that dominate my own conception of the world (such as the angels at the Festival). The knowledge that I have gained this semester has not led to an increase in my ability to objectify and analyze the subject of the Holocaust and its accompanying texts, but has instead made me increasingly unable to feel that I know anything, either about the Holocaust or about anything else in life. In this paper I will deal with the reinterpretations of both my questions about the Holocaust and my answers to them, as well as how my perspective on the world has changed as a result of a more detailed knowledge of the Holocaust, by exploring my relationships with various textsfictional, critical, and testimonialwhich were part of my initial contact with the deeper levels of understanding about the Holocaust, and then how the critical works that we have read this semester have altered my perceptions regarding those texts.
My biggest questions about the Holocaust has to do with the supposed "singularity" of the event that most of the critics and writers than we read took as a given. One reason that it has been hard for me to think of the events of the Holocaust as unique and unprecedented in any way other than the way in which all events are unique to the specific physical and temporal space in which they occur is that for them to be wholly unprecedented would mean that, when we attempt to capture them in language, we are either unable to speak for a lack of an appropriate metaphor or we somehow belittle the Shoah by comparing it to lesser events, Or, as Young says:
For even though these events were indeed like no others, as soon as we speak of them, or respond to them, or represent them in any fashion, we necessarily grasp them in relation to other events; even in their unlikeness, they are thus contextualized and understood in opposition to prevailing figures, but thus figured nonetheless. (Young 88)
But for a student of the Holocaust such as myself, one who is two generations removed from the events themselves and one generation from much of the criticism and writing about the Holocaust, the types that have been chosen to prefigure the Shoah (such as the Churban), and now, the ones that have been figured in relation to the extermination of the Jews (such as the recent "ethnic cleansing" that we have heard about in Bosnia) make it difficult for me to accept this unqualified statement about the absolute uniqueness of the Holocaust. I grew up having the Holocaust both compared with events before it and being compared to events that happened after and during it; as a child, the murder of six million Jews was no more horrible to me than the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshiima or the threatened apocalypse of the nuclear race between the USSR and the United States. I read Kurt Vonnegut in high school, who in his "Slaughterhouse-5", compared the Shoah to the total destruction of the almost wholly civilian German town of Dresden by allied fire-bombing, as well as to the general chaos and unnecessary destruction that all wars create.
These metaphors and others shaped the way that I thought about the world; accepting the notion that the Holocaust was wholly unprecedented and incomparable meant destroying some of the continuities and structures in my mind. And to do this would bring the Holocaust to me in a very personal and basic way: it would create the same break in continuity in terms of my organization of the world that the events of the Shoah did to history and language in general.
This personal break demonstrates what is possibly the purest form of personal remembrance: bringing events inside yourself that were once considered outsides and making the story of others as important as and even part of your own. But the fact that I am able in someway to do this shows that the break between history and language before and after the Holocaust is not total, which brings us back to the fact that if the events can be remembered in some way, then they must have some continuous relations to the things that preceded and followed them. Again we return to the paradox that threatens to destroy not only any understanding we might have of the Shoah, but also our continuing attempts to reach a deeper understanding of it: if it is unprecedented, then we cannot truly speak of it, but if it is not unprecedented then what can it truly be compared to?
What makes this paradox even more difficult for me personally to resolve in one direction or the other is the fact that, before I took "Holocaust and Memory", I took "Modern Jewish Literature", in which I studied many texts by Holocaust survivors which do manage to speak of the events without, I believe, belittling them. Through fiction, which is usually ranked at least one space further away from the "truth" than oral or written testimony, artists such as Wiesel, Grossman, and Oz are able to capture the essence of the Holocaust experience, with all its horror and despair, at least as well as any testimony could, often without even mentioning the events of the Holocaust directly.
The fact that many of these texts not only manage to talk about events that occurred during the Holocaust without trivializing them, but also show us ways in which we as readers can begin to heal the world fragmented by the Shoah makes it even more difficult to understand the events as singular. For if we are able to heal the history, language, and culture that was torn asunder by the Holocaust, then the destruction that it wreaked must not have been complete; there must be some connection between the worlds that existed before, during, and after the Holocaust if we are still able to speak about them and link them through language, meaning, and metaphor.
For instance, Wiesel's "Gates of the Forest" comes to the conclustion that forgetting or even not speaking are the worst things that the survivor can do to the other members of the community that still remain, as well as those who have perished. To forget in order to spare yourself pain is to participate in an act of Nazi destruction yourself: by forgetting that which they attempted to annihilate, you are destroying the memory of the people and traditions that were a part of that community, including oneself. So that forgetting after the Holocaust becomes both a form of murder and a form of suicide.
The protagonist in this novel, Gavriel, faces the problem of how to live humanely in the inhuman world that allowed the Holocaust. This is the so-called "second crisis" of the Holocaust: how to create a continuity between the events of the Holocaust and your "normal" life that exists before and after it. Gavriel (who denies his own existence throughout much of the book by going by the non-Jewish name of Gregor) is crushed by the memory of the events of the Holocaust, which included for him the deaths of his father and his best friend, among others. He feels that God has abandoned the Jews, and, as a result, wonders how he, as an insignificant human, can make any differencepositive or negativein a world that has been abandoned by God. He is caught up in the same paradox that I am: "if their death has no meaning (i.e., thre is nothing singular or unique about the events of the Holocaust), it's an insult, and if it does have a meaning, it's even more so" (Wiesel 197). If there is no God, then what is the point of living in a world that has proven itself to be horrible through the events of the Holocaust, and if there is a God, then how could he allow the events to happen?
The final section of the book, "Winter," opens with Gavriel's decision to "say goodbye" to the Jewish community: "he was going away, anywhere, leaving the city and the country, his name, his home, his job" (Wiesel 190). He is not just leaving the physical places that form his existence; he is actually leaving himself; it is a form of suicide. But while at the community center where he has decided to say goodbye, he meets the Rebbe, who challenges Gavriel's self-destructive notions on the nature of God, history, and life. Gavirel's "faith" in the pointlessness of things is threatened by a discussion with the Rebbe, and he nearly participates in the communal act of singing that will bring him back inside the Jewish community. But just as he opens his mouth to sing, Gavriel (who is still calling himself Gregor at this point) catches sight of his doppelganger, his other self who has followed him throughout the book, across the room. The beginning of Gavriel's recovery comes when he does not turn and run from this entity, but instead tells him a story, his own story to be specific.
The truly decisive moment in this text, however, when Gavriel must choose between total isolation of the self in an effort to forget both the Holocaust and the person that he is in relation to the Holocaust, and the painful re-submergence of himself back into the activities of both the communities of marriage (opening one's self up to one individual) and the larger Jewish community (opening one's self up to one's ancestorsto history, if you will), comes when he is asked to say the "Kaddish", the prayer for the dead that simultaneously affirms both life and God's power. Gavriel wakes, as if from a trance, after telling his story to his other self, to a student who is asking him to be the tenth man for the "Minyan", the morning prayer. Gavriel agrees, and for the first time in years identifies himself by his true name, his Jewish name. So, through the agency of wordsin his renaming of himself, in his telling a story to his doppelganger, and through his recital of the "Kaddish"Gavriel has begun to heal the wounds, both within himself and within his family and community, that the Holocaust inflicted.
By ended the book with the emphasis on language and words, Wiesel seems to be suggesting not only that the Holocaust was not an absolute singularity, but that the best way to recover from the damage done by those events is through language, which, if the Holocaust were truly unique, would be impossible due to language's inability to capture a wholly unprecedented event. Or, as the Rebbe says: "Auschwitz proves that nothing has changed, that the primeval war goes on. Man is capable of love and hate, murder and sacrifice. He is Abraham and Issac together. God himself hasn't changed" (Wiesel 194). And since God is the Word, the Logos that created the world, then this seems to affirm that it is not language that has changed, but rather that it has been corrupted by the Nazis' use of it. To attempt to reclaim language from their corruption through memory and testimony is to defeat the lingering power of the Nazis.
Similarly, David Grossman's "See Under: Love" deals with the sotry of the son of two survivors and his attempts to understand how the Holocaust affected his parents, himself, and the entire Jewish community. The narrator, Momik, is a writer, and uses his writing as a means to explore his development as a human, specifically a Jewish human who has to live in the historical shadow of the Holocaust. Near the end of the novel, after he has explored many different ways of dealing with the events of the Holocaust, he has essentially decided to cut himself off from himself, his community, and the events of the Holocaust (much life Gavriel) through the agency of words, which ironically have been used elsewhere in this text (and many other Holocaust novels) as the only way to remember, and therefore confront, the horrors of the Shoah.
In order to do this, Momik has decided to write "The Complete Encyclopedia of Kazik's Life", a twisted version of a book that he has wanted to write for a long time, an encyclopedia of the Holocaust for children to help explain some of the confusion about those events that he experienced as a child himself. But now, instead of using this prject as a way to communicate with others and to from a continuum between the survivors and their children, and even their children's childrenin other words to create a continuum with words that will help heal the Jewish community from the wounds inflicted by the HolocaustMomik decided to use it as a means to distance himself from that same community, and, therefore, himself as well.
The story of Kazik is the story of a boy who has only twenty-four hours to live from the moment he is born. But in the space of that one day he will go through all of the growth and decay of a normal individuali.e., he will go through childhood, puberty, maturity, old age, and death. He is the essence of the human experience: he has but a short time to live, he does not know what comes afterward (or even if there is an afterward), and quite often he is not sure what the purpose of life is. Momik uses his story as a way to mock the futility of humans attempting to love, to create, to simply live, given the larger cosmic perspective of their condition. By organizing the book in the form of an encyclopedia, which stands for Momik's adherence to the rational distancing of logic and words, he further emphasize his lack of personal involvement in the story.
But, contrary to his aims and expectations, Momik finds himself actually caring, not only about the story, but about the characters in the story, even though he knows that they are only characters. He learns to love, which is what the Holocaust has prevented him from doing all along. He understands, like Gavriel, that not to love is to participate in the actions of the Nazis. To love, or write poetry or novels, in light of the Holocaust is not barbaric or misguided, but is instead the greatest affirmation of life: to be able to love in spite of so much hate destroys the lingering power of that hate. It is not the ability to forget and isolate himself that helps Momik deal with the Holocaust, but instead the ability to remember fully the horror of the events and be able to love and live despite them. In addition, by loving, by reaching out to others, in both a personal and a communal sense, he establishes a link, a continuum that destroys the power of the Holocaust by proving that it was not a permanent break between past, present, and future.
Yaffa Eliach, in her "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust", goes one step further: instead of merely arguing that the Holocaust is the worst of human atrocities, but a human atrocity nonetheless (and therefore one that is capable of healing through human agency as well), Eliach actually uses the events of the Holocaust as a way to affirm not only the power of humans to do good, but the mysterious ways of God as well. Within the framework of the traditional Hasidic folktale, which is a form of memory which both records past events and instructs future listeners in the traditions and lessons of Hasidism, Eliach records stories that circulated within the camps during the Holocaust, almost all of which are designed to bring a positive, uplifting message of hope to their audience.
Many of the stories are actually about the reinforcement of faith within the framework of the camps. For instance, there are several stories about prisoners who, against all regulations and odds, are able to perform the ritual Jewish ceremonies such as Passover and Hanakkuh. And these ceremonies are not simply an affirmation of the Jewish community; they are an affirmation of the Jewish community under God, and therefore an affirmation of his power, and indeed, his living presence, despite the death that he is "allowing." The enactment of these ceremonies can be seen as a genuine miracle, not only in the sense that they bring a fragmented people back together, but also, considering the circumstance in which they occur, it is miraculous that they are able to be performed at all, no matter how many willing participants they have.
Young criticizes Eliach for mixing the testimonial "truth" of her tellers with her own desire to construct a fictional artifice that captures and remembers the Holocaust in a way that creates a continuum with the traditional framework of the Hasidic folktale:
In failing to distinguish the shape her own narrative hand has given Hasidic experiences from that of the original storytellers, Eliach betrays a surprisingly ingenuous approach to what are in effect her own works of fiction, written in a Hasidic mode. Though it seems plausible that Eliach has indeed discovered in the Hasidic tale a new genre of Holocaust literature, as she suggests, she may not have found it so much as created it herself. (Young 41)
Due to confusion on the title pages of the various editions of this book about who exactly gets credit for these stories, the tellers or Eliach, Young feels that Eliach has somehow manipulated her audience into thinking that these fictions, as Young believes them primarily to be, are actually the truth, straight from the mouths of the survivor-witnesses. He feels that she has sacrificed some of the elemental truth, not necessarily of the stories and the events that they describe, but of the versions that have been given to her in order to fit them into the pattern that she desires. When she states in the foreword that "in the process of transforming the material from documentation to art, I made a conscious effort to remain as faithful as possible to both the literary genre of the Hasidic tale as well as the individual storyteller and the particular history event" (Eliach xxiv), Young interprets this as:
That is, the aim here was primarily to preserve the form of the Hasidic tale itself, along with its particular lessons and truths. In simultaneously attempting to preserve the events as well, however, Eliach can finally transmit them only as they are legendarily reformulated to fit Hasidic principles of righteousness and justice. The initial confusion on the title page is thus aggravated in the author's foreword, for even as she acknowledges several layers of structuring, translating, and conforming to genre, she insists on the untenable historicity in these tales: they are simultaneously history and legend, documentation and art. (Young 41)
The possibility that Young does not acknowledge, however, is that these tales were structured into the Hasidic framework before Eliach ever heard them. When I first read these tales, not knowing that the author had had more influence on the tales than simply translating and editing them, they reminded me of the modern-day "urban legends" of our own society, which have been collected and classified by the sociologist Jan Harold Brunvand. It is possible that the tales were structured by the tellers themselves, not just the tellers that Eliach heard them from, but by all of the tellers who had ever told any of those storiesstructured, in fact, by the whole of the Jewish community.
Many of these stories were probably circulated within the camps themselves during the Holocaust; in that setting, the tales were probably tailored to bring some meaningor at least the possibility of meaningand hope to their audience. They were meant to provide role models, of a sort. They, like the urban legends that now circulate in our society, were equivalent to fairy talesmeant more for instruction than for verifiable, objective truth. The main requirement is not that they be truthful, or even necessarily credible, but that they raise the spirits of their audience. So despite Eliach's admission that she has "tampered" with the tales, both in her translation and her retelling of them, it may be that she is merely continuing the core tradition of oral historyfrom Beowulf to African storytellers to the urban legends of todaywhich is the act of retelling and reinterpreting. In this way she is continuing not only the traditions inherent in oral history, but in the specific traditions native to Hasidic talestraditions which many of her "original" tellers would have been trying to continue as well.
Finally, it doesn't matter whether or not the tales that Eliach recounts are fact or fiction. What counts is that, in writing or editing this book, she is attempting, through words, to create a link between the past that existed before the Holocaust, the events themselves, and the future that was shaped in light of it. The act of writing itself is an act of testimony and witness; no matter how many times you find yourself saying "I can't find the words to describe it," what matters is the fact that you are searching for them. The fact that it is possible to attempt to form a continuum, both through words and through the action of remembrance, means that there is some kind of continuum; for it would be impossible to construct such a thing if there were no real foundation for it, as would be the case if the Holocaust represented a total break from history.
I do not mention these three texts merely to argue that the Holocaust is not a singularity, but also to expose to you some of the reasons that I have had a hard time accepting it as such. My interpretations of these books all clearly point toward a belief in the possibility of integration and the creation of a complete or at least continuous whole despite the fragmentation effected by the Holocaust. These ideas are the ones that I brought into this course, the ideas that would subsequently be challenged and sometimes altered by the texts that we focused on this semester.
The more I read about the Holocaust in terms of a critical or historical perspective (as opposed to the fictional structure that we focused on in "Modern Jewish Literature"), the more the material started to overwhelm me; it sometimes got to the point where it wasn't just that I doubted whether my old ideas on the Holocaust were correct, I began to doubt the very suppositon that any objective truth could be gleaned from the maddening chaos of the Holocaust. But the position comes dangerously close to indifference (which is the true opposite of love, Wiesel says), or at least to being silent when the only action that will combat the Nazi evil is testimony and witnessing. Or, as Young says:
If carried to its literal end, an injunction against Auschwitz metaphors would place events outside of language and meaning altogether, thereby mystifying the Holocaust and accomplishing after the fact precisely what the Nazis had hoped to accomplish through their ownoften metaphoricalmystification of events. (Young 91)
But if we must speak, or else concede to the Nazis a posthumous victory, then how do we speak without belittling the events and their victims? This was the dilemma I felt myself caught in. After my original, more positivistic views on language and meaning in a post-Holocaust world were compared to the sheer despair in the testimony of the survivors, I felt somehow that I was an inadequate witness; the difference between those who were inside the box car with Eve and those of us who can only find traces of them after they are gone was again brought to the surface. For me, this difference did not simply involve the survivors and everyone else, but instead emphasized the differences between all individuals; so that the impossibility of the outsiders understanding the plight of the insiders on a larger scale transformed itself into the impossibility that anyone could understand anyone else.
Again, Young's ideas on this subject helped me to, if not wholly understand what my role in this process should be, then at least begin to view my problem in a way that would allow me to continue to speak. Rather than creating a new language which would be free from any negative associations with the events of the Holocaust, or not speaking at all, Young suggests that we should accept from the outset that language is going to be an inadequate vessel for meaning. But instead of a barrier, language and our meta-knowledge of it should become a tool that we can use to gain greater insight, not only to the events of the Holocaust, but (and perhaps more importantly) how we have chosen to react to and remember those events:
In fact, rather than attempting to quantify the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a means of disputing metaphor, or sanctioning metaphor altogether, the critic might be better served by exploring the interpretive aspects of metaphor and their consequences for both the victims and for our understanding of the events now. (Young 91-92)
In this light, metaphor becomes the linguistic conveyer of meaning and knowledge which both tells of the events that it describes as well as reflects back at its creators their own perceptions of those events. Once aware of these possibilities, the critic can being to understand not only how the victims and victimizers perceived the events of the Holocaust, but how we, through our choice of language and metaphor, have chosen to commemorate and remember these events. Language and its use in commemoration from this point of view becomes an act of witness and testimony.
In the sense that words and metaphors can be manipulated by their audience, it also becomes a leap of faith that the meaning that you are imparting to your testimony by your choice of words will be received by your audience. The choice to speak becomes at the same time a conscious structuring of language that attempts to record the events from a certain vantage point and an act of hope and faith that your meaning will be transmitted to your audience. Testimony in this perspective is the faith that Eliach speaks of in her forewords, an "optimistic link, providing the structural continuity between past and future, which endowing the wretchedness of the present with dignity" (Eliach xviii).
The second major dilemma I am faced with when trying to comprehend the events of the Holocaust is the question of victimhood. Who "qualifies" as a victim and why? Doesn't the notion of victimhood perpetuate the idea that there is some uncrossable barrier between those who were there and those who were not, which, in its ability to isolate the victims from the continuity of history and society, achieves exactly what the Nazis had hoped? Are there different levels of victimhood, and, if so, then is one person's individual holocaust of lesser importance somehow than another's? Isn't everyone who feels a personal breach with language and history as a result of knowledge, either first or second hand, of the Holocaust in some way a victim of its power as well?
The project that my group presented for a monument about the Holocaust shows some of the ways in which I attempted (somewhat unsuccessfully) to deal with these questions. Our plan was to create a monument in downtown Dresden, the German town with no overtly military installations (a factory that made syrup fortified with vitamins and minerals for pregnant women and a cigarette factory) that was firebombed to cinders by the Allies near the end of the war. The outer façade was to be a huge smokestack, an overtly Jewish symbol of suffering in a post-Holocaust world. Upon entering this structure, the view would then proceed into a hole in the middle of the floor and down some stairs. These would lead to a dark underground passage, wide enough for only one person at a time, that twisted and turned sharply so that the viewer could never see more than five or ten feet in front of him or herself. The tunnel would end with the viewer suddenly bursting into a large underground cavern with a huge wall of fire in front of him or her. Behind this wall of fire, appearing to be both consumed and illuminated by the fire, would be two tablets, one describing the events of the Holocaust and the Jew's particular form of destruction by fire, the other telling of the destruction of the community of Dresden by firebombing.
The possible complications of a monument such as this are the same as when one who is not a survivor attempts to speak for those who were there. Or even more difficult, when one of the living, survivors included, attempt to speak for the dead victims. How does one remember without belittling? Does the remembrance of one set or type of victim preclude the remembrance of another? Is there such a thing as the guilty victim, one who deserved what he or she got, and if so, how do we make the distinction between the guilty and the innocent?
in our monument, we attempted to address a few of these questions, though I am not sure if my partners would completely agree with my interpretations of the symbols we used and their usefulness in trying to address these problems. I personally feel that the monument was meant to stress the similarity of the destructions, i.e., a community selected for no real reason for total and absolute destruction. At the same time, however, I did not want to belittle the more widespread and organized slaughter of Jews. This is one reason why we chose an overtly Jewish symbol of destruction to make up the outer form of the monument, to remind people that it was primarily this destruction that was being commemorated. What I hoped would happen when people, particularly the residents of Dresden, entered the monument, was that they would be able to see that what the Allies had done to the people of Dresden had been exactly what the Nazis had done to the Jews, so that instead of seeing the two groups as distant and separate from one another, the viewers would be able to understand the suffering that both underwent; thereby the viewers, particularly the modern day residents of Dresden, would be able to understand that they were not alone in their suffering. Then they would be able to give their sympathy and understanding to both the victims of the Holocaust and the modern Jewish community as a result of their new-found source of identification with the pain and near-destruction of the Jews.
Of course, many people would argue that any German, no matter what their degree of involvement with or resistance to the Nazi party were fair game for the Allied soldiers. Therefore, the destruction of Dresden, which not only demolished the buildings, but also roasted most of its inhabitants alive in their cellars, was justified within the framework of the larger war. The trouble that I have with this is that the framework of war is in fact a flawed and corrupted one, as far as I am concerned, and no more justifiable or "right" than the framework that the Nazis established to justify the murder of Jews. If there is no such thing as "collective guilt" after the war, then I do not see how this same concept can be applied to the opposing forces during the war. If every man and woman is personally responsible for his or her own actions, then they should only be held accountable for those same individual actions. Yet war establishes a frame whereby anyone, no matter how "guilty" or "innocent," is accountable for the actions of everyone else on his or her "side." I think that this framework is as flawed as the Nazi-Ayran framework of those who are allowed to live and those who must die, and I therefore reject it. Which, of course, makes it extremely difficult to separate those who are truly guilty and those who were merely innocent bystanders, since everyone on the losing side will claim that they were manipulated (or victimized) by those higher up in the hierarchy than they.
Many of these issues were addressed by theologians, scholars, and journalists on the occasion of Reagan's visit to the war cemetery at Bitburg. Helmut Kohl had arranged the visit as a way to let Germany officially back into the community of nations on the fortieth anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Reagan placed a wreath in the military cemetery at Bitburg to symbolically show that Germany's forty years of penance were officially over, and they could now go back to being another "normal" country without the memory of the Holocaust hanging over their heads. The trouble came, however, when it was discovered that, among the thousands of graves of the "Wehrmacht", the ordinary army, were 49 S.S. graves.
Aside from all the political shenanigans and the true lack of understanding of the situation by Reagan and his advisors, the visit to Bitburg, S.S. graves or no, underlines many of the problems that I have with assigning responsibility, guilt, and victimhood. The fact that people were upset by the presence of the S.S. (who were largely responsible for organizing and carrying out Hitler's final solution) in the cemetery but not of the "Wehrmacht" (who, aside from their "regular" military functions, did support work for the S.S., including rounding up Jews in the ghettos), to me suggests that we do in fact see some difference between civilians, soldiers, and the elite S.S.
But how can we make these distinctions without falling into Reagan's trap of blaming it all on one man, since the civilians will say that they were under the power of the army, the army will say it was controlled by the S.S., the S.S. will say that they were just following their commanders' orders, and those commanders, finally, will say that they were under Hitler's power? If anything, this should prove that the framework of war is corrupt, since it either allows men to commit heinous crimes without being expected to take personal responsibility for them because they were "just following orders," or it makes everyone on an almost arbitrarily designated "side" accountable for the sins of everyone else on that side. We reject the notion of collective guilt, while at the same time buying into a frame which forces everyone into an "us-them" position where individuals are punished arbitrarily for the crimes of others. Again, this reminds me frighteningly of the Nazi system of persecution, where if one Jew resisted, a hundred were killed in his place.
The thing that, in this case, quite probably sets the Jewish killings apart from the "normal" random chaos of a war, is the fact that they were not being killed simply for their land, their wealth, or any alleged crimes that they had committed, which are the basis for most conflicts: they were being murdered just because they were Jews. They were not on a "side"; Hitler killed Jews from Poland, France, Italy, Hungary, and Germany, among others. The way that makes it easiest for me to separate their predicament out from among the other victims of the war was to ask myself whether or not Hitler would have ordered this final solution outside of the framework of war, and the answer , or course, would be yes. It had nothing to do with power, or land, or money: he just wanted them dead. If there is any such thing as an innocent victim, especially within our corrupt but accepted framework of war, then I believe that the Jews would have qualified. They did nothing but live to deserve their deaths.
So regardless of the levels of victimhood that might exist within the frame of wartime, the Jews are somehow an entirely different type of victim, because of the fact that they would have been victims no matter what. Or, as Elie Wiesel says, "[n]ot all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims" (Hartman 242). This is not to forget that the other victims of the war were unimportant, nor is a comparison between their suffering and that of the Jews meant to justify, within the framework of war, the actions of the Nazis against the Jewish community, but instead should make everyone realize that we are all victims. The victimhood of the Jews epitomizes the plight of all victims everywhere, just as the remembrance of their suffering should let us sympathize with all victims while at the same time keep us vigilant about either becoming victimizers ourselves or allowing others to be victimized (which is itself a form of victimizing).
My study of modern Jewish literature was my first real introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust and the difficulties of speaking, writing, loving, and living in world that allowed such events. But, as a result of the writers' tendencies to organize the events and bring them to some kind of resolution, I still did not grasp the true horror. I always had an opinion, an analytical or critical view behind which to hide from the events themselves by concentrating instead on the actual texts that commemorated them; words never failed me.
Until this semester. The more I have learned about the Holocaust, especially through the primary texts of testimony and witness, the less I have been able to understand anything about the events or the kind of world that could allow those events. I found myself truly speechless. I could not analyze Bomba cutting hair while talking about the gas chambers, or Srebnik singing on the river while speaking of his near-death experiences. It was too real, too close; I felt I had no right to speak until I could truly understand, while at the same time realizing that I could never really comprehend what they were saying. Words became veils, hiding and shading rather than illuminating what they were describing. For the events truly were indescribable: the words could tell us essentially what happened, but could never begin to tell us the why's hiding behind the actions.
Earlier this year, a month or six weeks ago, I woke up at four o'clock in the morning from a terrible dream that I cannot remember. But even though I was awake, I was still dreaming: all around me, stacked up to the ceiling of my room, were piles of dead Jews. Their eyes and mouths were open, but they could not speak. I began to cry. They had something to say to me, but I could not hear them; I had something to say for them, but I could not find the words.
I still cannot answer the why's of the Holocaust, or even very many of the questions I have about the events. I cannot answer most of the questions that I posed to myself in this paper. But I understand now that total understanding of the events, and answering all the questions, is not the point. The purpose of studying the Holocaust is not to comprehend but to quest for comprehension, while at the same time realizing that one can never achieve this goal. It is Eliach's act of faith that forms a link in spite of the many barriers. Like other forms of witness and testimony, the point is not to reach an endpoint and to somehow restore the balance, but simply to try. I can only know the events and victims of the Holocaust second hand. Words, ruins, and monuments are all that remain now. But nevertheless, I can attempt to know these, and to remember, however imperfectly, the victims who left them behind, as well as the survivors who told the stories that the dead could not. I will never know what those dead Jews in my dream are trying to say to me; they are gone forever. But I will listen anyway.
Eliach, Yaff. "Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust". New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Hartman, Geoffrey, ed. "Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective". Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Wiesel, Elie. "The Gates of the Forest". Trans. Frances Frenaye. New York: Hold, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1966. New York: Schocken Books, 1982.
Young, James E. "Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation". Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.