Sunday, February 24

Walpurgisnacht und Andere Shenanigans

My, my, my, but a lot of things happened in this part of the novel! I think every time I’m annoyed by some sort of nagging doubt or repetitive, unproductive thoughts I'm going to imagine I'm Margarita, free and soaring over the world on a broom, laughing. I read something on the internet about how Bulgakov’s apartment, which is supposed to be apartment 50 in the book, became a favorite haunt of Satan worshippers. I’m not sure if it still is, because it is apparently a museum, but the Satan worshippers thing I thought was a little bit stupid. I don’t understand why anyone would think this book is Satanic. Just because the devil is a character in it, that doesn’t make it Satanic. I’m betting none of those so-called Satan worshippers ever read the book.

Satan is merely a device for pointing out the wrongdoings of humanity. I’ve noticed that all the characters in this book who get attacked, beaten, vampirized, etc., by Woland and his cronies are people who are shown to be cruel people with cruel and selfish motives and/or intentions. Such as Berlioz’s uncle, who cares more about Berlioz’s apartment than Berlioz’s death. The Variety barman, who at first seems to be treated cruelly by Woland, Inc., is shown to be a cheapskate and a hoarder. The doctor the barman visits is judgmental, arrogant, and mentally calls the barman a “madman.” Bulgakov makes sure to show each character’s judgmental, self-righteous, or selfish thoughts before Woland does something bad to them. It seems like the ones who are more innocent, like Ivan and the Master, just end up in the madhouse. And I love the verbal exchanges between Woland and the barman and Woland and Behemoth, such as when the barman says, “I beg your pardon,” and Woland says, “I cannot pardon you!” I love it when clever people call attention to trite phrases by turning them on their heads. It reminds me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Catch-22—I suppose it is a signifier of Menippean satire.

I think the Walpurgisnacht Ball is a theme that blends well with the excesses of the Jazz Age. I think I see some condemnation of American excess here. The scene where the rotting corpses enter the apartment through the fireplace is really funny, and I am now sure that JK Rowling has read this book, because several of Woland’s magical devices are very similar to things in Harry Potter books. (Of course she would have read it, because this book is a riot! I eon’t know why I always notice things that are found in Harry Potter. I can’t help it; they are very memorable and creative. I think JK Rowling herself may have sold her soul to Woland...) I’ve just been reading Mark Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” for my Lit of the American West class. My favorite line out of the whole thing is the following: “...the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.” I think of this scene in The Master and Margarita, rather than anything in Cooper, every time I think of this line.

I find it interesting that there’s no mention in the footnotes as to why the ladies are all naked. I’m sure this is simply a Walpurgisnacht tradition, but I am too lazy look it up right now—that’s what footnotes are for! I think Mr. Pevear is a bit remiss in not saying anything about it at all, especially after all the great detail he goes into about the claw-footed candelabrum, Satan’s dirty shirt (that would be a good name for a rock band!), and all the famous Italian poisoners of history. I will forgive him, however. Nothing can get in the way of my enjoying this book!

Thursday, February 21

Dreams are important in relation to reality because they allow a person to escape from aspects of his life that are unpleasant or unsatisfactory. By dreaming of a better life, humans aspire to make their lives and the lives of their children better. This is how mankind progresses. Isak Dinesen’s “The Dreaming Child” is a better signifier of dreams in the world of reality than Franz Kafka’s “A Dream” or Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha because Dinesen’s Jens symbolizes the longing of mankind. Without longing, mankind would never progress and would eventually die as Jens dies when his dreams come true and his longing is rendered obsolete.
The situation Jens is raised in is one that would naturally give rise to dreaming. The dreaming symbolized by Jens in “The Dreaming Child” is an act of imagination that a person engages in to escape a reality that is harsh, dull, or otherwise unsatisfactory. Jens’s existence is more than just unsatisfactory; it is utterly bleak. His home in “the slums of old Copenhagen” is “a labyrinth of filth, decay and foul smell.” He is parentless, and Madame Mahler considers him to be a “weak”-minded burden. Such an existence would crush the spirit of many, but Jens knows that he belongs “somewhere else.” This belief of a right to a better existence allows Jens to have vivid dreams at night when he is unconscious. The memory of these dreams is enough to sustain Jens when he is awake, engaged in his dismal reality (156).
The belief that he belongs to a better world is the essential component of mankind’s longing manifesting itself in little Jens. This initial belief is what allows Jens to grab onto Mamzell Ane’s tales of grand houses full of light and warmth. In Jens’s fantasy world, he gets to control all of the components of his life. He gets to create what his parents are like and what his house is like. This is the opposite of his real life, in which he is basically powerless and at Madame Mahler’s mercy. His dream of a better life includes not only material trappings like a nice house and many toys, but also the love of a family; of a mother and a father. It allows Jens to feel that he deserves to be loved, thus he imagines what it feels like to be loved, which in turn makes his harsh life bearable. Jens longs for love before he meets Jakob and Emilie.
Emilie also longs for a love that is not part of her reality, and for a different reality than the one in which she exists. The life she leads doesn’t seem like it would make a person dissatisfied; she is wealthy, beautiful, and married with the promise of a financially successful future. She has little in common with Jens as far as her situation in life, but as Emilie tells herself, “This child is as lonely in life as I,” (170). She longs for the love of Charlie, the man she once rejected.
Jens dies because his dreams become reality, rendering his need for longing obsolete. Dinesen describes Jens as a being for whom, “the essence of his nature [i]s longing,” (176). He has no reason to live once all of his dreams are made true. After Jens dies, Emilie takes up this dream, incorporating Jens into her wish that she hadn’t rejected Charlie that night so long ago. Emilie alters the dream a little bit to suit her own wishes and desires, but it is still essentially the same dream begun by Jens; the dream of a family composed of a mother, a father, and a son. This dream appeals to Emilie because it keeps a part of Jens alive. It also allows her to feel in her heart as though she did not reject her true love and in fact got to keep a part of him. Emilie’s adaptation of Jen’s dreaming is going to be more successful than Jens’s because it can never come true and thus never quell her need for longing, as happened to Jens. The fact that this dream is adaptable to different dreamers is symbolic of the relation of dreams to the human condition.
In Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Siddhartha is not interested in dreams. Siddhartha wants to achieve enlightenment, and this want is also a manifestation of human longing. Siddhartha is different from Jens or Emilie because he actively seeks the thing he longs for; he is not a dreamer. Siddhartha leaves the Brahmin lifestyle to become a Samana because he believes it will lead to enlightenment. When he wants to leave the Samanas, he does so. If he were to go about things like Jens and Emilie, he would just spend his time imagining what it would be like to achieve enlightenment, but he would never actually achieve it. Enlightenment is something that can only be achieved when “every longing and every drive in his heart ha[s] fallen silent,” (13). The very thing that Siddhartha longs for is to be free from all longing. That Siddhartha wishes to be free from longing places him in opposition to my thesis that longing is needed for mankind to progress.
Franz Kafka’s “A Dream” takes place within a dream. This dream is not the same as the dreams of Jens and Emilie, however, because Josef is not engaging his imagination as an act of will to create a different reality like they do. He is unconscious. He does not have control of this dream. This dream renders Josef a passive agent, and the only actions he takes are reactions. He must “quickly jump...onto the grass” because the path he walks on is moving away from him (75). Josef expresses longing in this dream, but his longing only attends to the immediate circumstance, such as the beginning when he “want[s] to go for a walk,” (75). When Josef watches the artist inscribe the tombstone, he wants to know what the artist is writing, but he cannot make the artist move faster and can only wait for him to continue. Josef spends a long time waiting for the artist and becomes frustrated. He is relieved of his frustration when he understands that he must get into the grave. This dream is about understanding; it is not about mankind’s longing for something better.
Isak Dinesen’s “The Dreaming Child” gives a better understanding of the significance of dreams and fantasies in the world of reality than Franz Kafka’s “A Dream” or Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. The reason Dinesen does this better than Kafka or Hesse is because her character Jens is an allegory, symbolic of man’s yearning for progress. He dies when he can no longer dream, because he lives to dream. Jens’s death is symbolic of the fate that mankind would suffer if humans had no need to dream or long for something better; progress would stop and mankind would die out. Hesse’s Siddhartha wants to be free from longing therefore his situation is opposite that of Jens. Kafka’s Josef K. is a man who experiences frustration until he understands the meaning of the dream he has while unconscious.

Wednesday, February 13

Michel de Montaigne’s “On Cannibals” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” call several things to my mind. I think it would be generally agreed that cannibalism is the number one of what are referred to as “food taboos,” however I don’t think “food taboo” quite covers it, because it’s a more fundamental concept than that. Though I know that food taboos operate on deep cultural, psychological, and philosophical levels, to me the title “food taboo” sounds too casual. The thing that fascinates me the most about cannibalism is just how fascinated much of Western society is with it. The public is certain to remember true stories involving cannibalism, such as pertain to the Donner Party or Jeffrey Dahmer. Most Americans associate the Donner Party with cannibalism, even if they don’t know many other facts about it. Several movies and a musical have been made about Alferd Packer, Colorado miner and cannibal, who also has a cafeteria named after him at the University of Colorado. The cafeteria’s slogan is “Have a friend for lunch!”

I typed the word “cannibal” in a search on the Internet Movie Database and pulled up a long list of movies about cannibals and with characters named “Cannibal.” This list includes the movie “Cannibal Holocaust”—soon to be released on a 25th anniversary DVD—which my horror-film-obsessed friend says is the type of movie you watch, “when you just want to be disgusted with everything and feel like the world is NOT OK.” Consider the success of The Silence of The Lambs’ Hannibal Lecter, who has appeared in five books and the same number of films, and was voted in 2001 to be the “most memorable villain in film history” by the American Film Institute. I doubt there are many Americans of my generation or older who fail to associate fava beans with the line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” The horror genres of vampire and zombie fiction are based on ideas linked to cannibalism. Both are extremely popular forms of entertainment, as well.

I remember reading Piers Paul Read’s Alive in high school. It’s the story of the Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes in 1972 and the surviving members of the team turned to cannibalism to remain alive. I remember that most of my classmates were pretty uncomfortable with the subject of cannibalism, which lead to many bad jokes. One of our assignments for Alive was a creative project that we had to present to the class. I wanted to stay as far away from the cannibalism aspect as possible and wrote a diary as though I was the girlfriend of one of the rugby players. My friend Julie wrote a diary as one of the survivors that detailed the mental preparation he had to go through in order to take the first bite of his departed comrade’s flesh. I was so uncomfortable while she was reading this that I burst out laughing a few times when it was extremely inappropriate to do so. Though everyone was pretty uncomfortable with that book, everyone in my class read every page of it, (which is more than I can say for some other novels), because it was so fascinating.

Tuesday, February 12

I am interested in what Aeneas Snell represents, for he seems to be present whenever bad things happen. I’m not sure I want to call him a scapegoat, because the princes whom he befriends don’t have the omniscient viewpoint of the tale’s narrator, and probably aren’t aware that his presence has anything to do with the “catastrophes and dramas” that occur when he’s around. He is more like an embodiment of the darkness within man, the final push a man needs in order to plunge his sword into another. Considering what was going on in Europe when Dinesen was writing this, Snell could represent the mysterious force that blinds or numbs or invites complicity from ordinary citizens to atrocities such as the Holocaust and lets them retain their belief that they are good people. He is that other, the being who acts on our parts or who we blame when we do something bad. He is as old as man, hence the ancient spelling of his name. He is the darkness inside all of us.

I watched many ridiculously bad horror TV shows as a child. I remember one episode whose plot probably dates back to some ancient folk tale, but was made pretty ridiculous by the show’s poor production values. In the episode, a little girl gets a teddy bear for her birthday and it starts telling her to do things. The little girl starts misbehaving, and her excuse is, “Teddy made me do it.” Eventually she kills or tries to kill her parents and ends up in a mental hospital because she always maintains “Teddy made me do it.” In the end, the bear is given to charity or something, so you know he will strike again. The show actually portrayed the bear as evil and coercing the girl to do things. A more psychologically subtle portrayal would have left it up to the viewer to decide whether the bear actually told her to do things or not.

It is such a fundamental part of the human psyche that when we don’t like something we’ve done, we need to separate out a force or a being to blame it on, because we want to maintain the fact that we are good people and the notion that both good and bad exist within man is a hard thing for many people to swallow. This is part of why I think Snell’s tale is “consolatory” in nature—he is illustrating to Charlie through the tale of the “true” prince who perceives that all is good and the “false” prince who perceives that all is suffering, that both things can exist within the same “state,” whether that state be a principality or a human psyche. The tale is supposed to be consoling to Charlie’s own bruised ego and psyche, which are in a constant state of both joy and suffering due to Charlie’s artistic pursuits. They have also been injured by Charlie’s recent divorce, and though the narrator doesn’t say it, the reader can infer that Charlie is wrestling with questions of blame and identity as a result of the divorce. I also think that part of the “consolatory” nature of the tale is that it is a consolation prize for Charlie upon his wife leaving him.

Sunday, February 10

I have had more trouble writing this response than any since I started 19th Century Continental Lit last semester. It boils down to the fact that I do not want to touch Dinesen’s exquisite prose with my own clumsy observations. Also, this story tied my brain in knots I’m still trying to untangle. I would like to read this story (and all of the stories in Winter’s Tales) at least 5 more times before I feel qualified to say anything about it, but since I have a date with James Fenimore Cooper’s long 19th Century descriptive prose, I won’t do that.

First I want to say that, as a writer, Dinesen seems to have a reverence, a love for her characters that you don’t always find in short stories. I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor here, because she also writes allegorical tales. There is so much coldness in how she treats her characters sometimes—no matter what they do, they always get a big Old Testament slap in the face. Their lives are so bleak. And though I love O’Connor, her legacy seems to have made it obligatory for American writers of short stories to treat their characters with the same harshness. I suppose this legacy is actually the legacy of Modernism, but I haven’t taken any other 20th Century classes, other than the Modern and Post-Modern sections of History of Lit Crit. I don’t know a lot about Modernism other than I am wary of it when it comes to writing. Dinesen treats her characters more like children whom she wants to support and nourish. What makes me contrast her with O’Connor is page 186 when Emilie says “The world is not a hard or severe place. You are forgiven everything.” I read on Wikipedia that her stories often take place in earlier centuries because “she want[s] to express a spirit that no longer exists in modern times: the sense of destiny and courage.” I find her writing to be very refreshing for this reason.

“The Dreaming Child” reminds me of a fairy tale. It’s a little sad because it contains a sweet little boy who you become attached to and you’re so happy when his dreams come true. It’s heartbreaking that he dies when he no longer has anything to dream about , but Dinesen has set you up to expect that he will die. As for Jakob and Emilie, at the beginning of the tale they are both more like children themselves. Jakob idolizes Emilie but doesn’t know who she really is. Emilie has married Jakob out of duty to her family, typical of a 19th Century marriage. I think this story was definitely influenced by A Doll’s House and it seems to me like it could have been written as a reaction against it. I’m reminded of the Victorian notion of the woman’s place as the “angel in the home,” however in this story Jens would be the angel in Jakob and Emilie’s home. Jens’s role, symbolically, is to unite their family, and once his job is completed, he departs this astral plane. However, I’m not sure he actually accomplishes the task of uniting Emilie and Jakob.

Part of why this reminds me of a fairy tale is the ambiguous ending. I know the more Disneyfied fairy tales usually have a moral at the end, but I seem to recall some more obscure Grimm’s fairy tales that have ambiguous endings. On the one hand, Emilie has picked up the torch of Jens’s dreaming—something I find essential to human nature, especially in the 20th Century when the whole earth has been explored and science can explain almost everything. Emilie and Jakob’s relationship seems to have been strengthened by the experience of loving Jens, but it’s rather perverse that Emilie decides to remember him as the love child of she and her dead true love. Before Jens came along, she was just going through the motions of behavior required by her position in society—working with charities, marrying Jakob—these things were her identity, but only because it was the identity prescribed for her by tradition and society. The “paradoxical” things mentioned on page 184 originate in Emilie’s perception of Charlie. Charlie was a well-known cad, but Emilie has always told herself that he was noble and only loved her. On page 185, she calls him “magnanimous” for trying to seduce her. She is already lying to herself about these things, and the paradox is that she has to in order to be true to the part of herself that loves Charlie.

Also part of the paradox is the fact that she decides to live this lie about the origin of Jens. Or is it the truth? Is it not possible that everything the reader is told at the beginning of the tale regarding the Plejelts and the part of the story regarding Emilie’s refusal of Charlie is the lie? Given the nature of the “dreaming” in the story and the way the characters use it to alter their origins, it makes me wonder. I will stop now before my paper gets too metaphysical.

Ever since I read Danish author Peter Hoeg’s novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow, I’ve been convinced that the Danish know something about life—some big secret—that they aren’t letting the rest of the world in on. Maybe it has something to do with the sort of landscapes they live in, or the long, introspective darkness of winter, balanced by the endlessly bright days of summer and the northern lights? I have to extend this secret knowledge to all northern-dwelling peoples, Scandinavian, Russian, etc. I have always wanted to live somewhere where the landscape, the weather, the days and nights, would be something surreal compared to the landscapes of Colorado and Idaho, where I have lived all my life. Not that I don’t find certain vistas in Rocky Mountain National Park or the Sawtooths to be awe-inspiring, indeed I think of them while reading Ann Radcliffe’s many dissertations on sublime landscapes in The Mysteries of Udolfo.

I have been all over the west and seen all kinds of mountains and all kinds of plains. I love mountains and love to look at them. I still resent a comment a friend made to me once on a drive to Salmon, when she rhapsodized about a particular farming valley in the mountains near Challis or Clayton. I said, “It’s okay I guess,” and her response was, “Well. I guess landscapes just don’t affect you the way they affect me.” I bristle every time I think about this conversation. What I wanted to tell her was this: when you’ve grown up on the doorstep of Rocky Mountain National Park, you ain’t gonna get excited over every little mountain or valley in Idaho. I suspect she—who has backpacked all over the Frank Church Wilderness and worked as a ranger all over the Salmon River wilderness—would probably feel similarly jaded about landscapes in Colorado.

Thursday, February 7

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland plays with conventions of being a child in the very rigid adult world of Victorian England. Alice’s place as a child in Victorian England is to be seen and not heard. She must observe many particular behaviors and her education is made up of methodical verse memorizations and a very hierarchical system of rules and manners. Her adventure in Wonderland sideslips her into a world where she is able to interact with the other characters as an equal rather than as a proper, submissive Victorian child.

I can’t read this text without noticing the nature of Alice’s conversations with the other creatures in Wonderland. They are often composed of presumptuous, demanding, or officious questions, followed by answers that are either non sequiturs or that seem downright hostile. Take for instance, Alice’s conversation with the frog Footman on page 69. “‘How am I to get in?” asked Alice again, in a louder tone. ‘Are you to get in at all?’ said the Footman. ‘That’s the first question, you know.’” The frog’s answer reminds the reader that Alice is rather presumptuous to just assume she can enter this house, which happens to belong to the Duchess. She is, in fact, behaving quite improperly for a Victorian child, for no proper little Victorian girl would march up to a Duchess’s house and demand entry. Wonderland, however, is not governed by these same rules, and Alice simply curses the frog for being argumentative. A moment later she asks him, “‘But what am I to do?’” to which he responds, “‘Anything you like.’” This phrase is definition of Alice’s Wonderland; it is a place wherein she can do whatever she pleases. She can walk right into the Duchess’s house unannounced and unintroduced and begin asking questions about the Cheshire Cat and dispensing childcare advise to the Duchess.

Alice and the Footman’s conversation also plays with children’s perceptions of adults. The first description of this very formal Footman is that he is a frog, and he receives a message from an equally formal fish, and the two are very rigid in stature and wear powdered wigs that get “entangled together” when they both bow at the same time, causing Alice to laugh (67). To a child, such formality in adults would seem just as absurd if the participants were human as if they were a frog and a fish. Through Alice, the reader gets to laugh at the silly rituals that are part of proper society.

Sunday, February 3

I feel like Siddhartha’s torpidity and the subsequent unhappiness and nausea that cause him to leave Kamala and his riches behind are payback for the complete arrogance and disdain he exercises earlier as a Samana. So contemptuous and arrogant are his feelings towards Kamaswami and everyone—Brahmins, Kamaswami, the “child-people”—that I don’t think it’s possible for him to ever achieve enlightenment until he overcomes this. I am glad that he finally becomes aware of his pride on page 83 and that his baptism in the river seems to have made him aware of it so he can move past this obstacle towards enlightenment.

Part of what I think the Samanas get wrong is their stance that the “Self” must be overcome. I disagree with this. I wouldn’t even say that all pride must be overcome, but certainly the type of pride that is destructive. What Hesse has made me think about, (and I don’t know if this is exactly what he is saying, because sometimes he is way over my head), is that I have always had a hard time coming to grips with the doctrines of religions that want people to separate the body and the soul. So many religions convey an urgency to “overcome the flesh” in order to dwell in the spiritual realm, and in the past I have often thought of it as hogwash. I forget, however, how hard daily life was for people throughout all of history up until the Industrial Revolution and the 20th Century—and still is, for many. Work was back-breaking, there were lice, dentistry was primitive at best, and sexual incontinence had many unpleasant consequences—physical, social, and economic. I can see why early religious doctrines tried to help people to rise above daily pain or to quell their desire to sleep around.

What I cannot reconcile myself to, however, is doctrines such as the one preached by the Samanas that one must negate the physical self entirely to be at one with the divine. Their practices call to mind Catholic monks who practice self-flagellation and wear hair underwear and otherwise mortify the flesh. It doesn’t even make sense to me that one should try to separate the body from the mind, because the physical reality of it is the fact that one is housed within the other. I don’t see how one can be happy if he is constantly attempting to deny this by either trying to become immune to pain, like the Samanas, or punishing the flesh, like Catholic monks (an absurdity I think was also made apparent by Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony”). And what does happiness have to do with it? Well, that’s what I think is the fallacy of the Samanas. I think their understanding of enlightenment is deeply flawed, for they want it, but their philosophy does not seem to allow for any happiness, and what is enlightenment if not a hyperbolically-named type of happiness? I know it means to break out of the cycle of rebirth—and isn’t it an unhappy, dissatisfying cycle? It seems to me that breaking out of it would mean achieving peace and happiness, and I think it’s a little absurd that Samanas want to reach this goal of perfect happiness by putting themselves through so much pain. Also, if enlightenment means the unity of all things, then how is separating the mind/spirit from the body working towards unity?

No wonder Siddhartha gets so bogged down in the material world during this middle section. He still approaches everything as though his body and mind were separate. He is not balanced. I vaguely remember from reading this novel in high school that he does achieve enlightenment by the end by living on the river. Perhaps he also does some yoga, because that would really help him out.

I think it's lamentable that Hemingway didn't get to edit this himself, but I also think that Mary Hemingway has been maligned by critics and scholars who think that they could have done a better job editing it than she did. Maybe they could have, but there would still be doubts as to whether or not it was true to Hemingway's vision. Gerry Brenner gives strong evidence to show that Hemingway was not finished with this memoir at the time of his death, even though Mary states otherwise, and it is well-known that Hemingway didn't want anyone to "put his cotton-picking typewriter to work on" his writing.

I never really liked his writing until I read this memoir, and it has definitely changed my mind about both him and his writing. He seems to me, more than many artists, someone whom people think they know intimately after coming into contact with his work. I've always thought this was an interesting phenomenon, and maybe something to be wary of.

Despite what I said above about thinking that one knows him through his writing, I wonder if there is anything to the fact that he killed himself before he could publish his memoir?