March 23, 2012
March 18, 2012
March 12, 2012
Our second class moved from Karl Marx’ central claim about capitalism, that the exploitive “bourgeoisie” dominated and suppressed the “proletariat,” to a glance at the impact of that nineteenth-century economic theory on twentieth-century literary criticism, especially the idea that great writers jar readers out of their willful blindness to the hegemonic tyrannies of capitalist culture (Abrams, Glossary, 155-61).
Having sketched this theoretical background, I reminded the students that Arthur Miller’s Salesman came to the American stage in 1949, just two decades after the Great Depression, the horrific economic and cultural upheaval that exposed the destructive side of unbridled capitalism and challenged the myth of the American Dream, the idea that hard work always yields personal and economic success; many viewers, therefore, saw Miller’s play as America’s proletarian tragedy. Stressing these last two words, I challenged my students to think for themselves, to decide to what extent the play reflects Marxist ideology, to what extent it challenges the Marxist critique of capitalism, and to what extent it the play qualifies as a tragedy.
Noting Miller’s passionate belief that an ordinary man or woman could qualify as a tragic character, I referred the students to the first topic on their assignment sheet, which provides the classical definition of “tragedy” and asks them to write an essay on the extent to which they agree with the author about Willy’s tragic stature:
Critic M. H. Abrams defines “tragic hero” as a noble character with intelligence and compassion, a good man or woman who commits an error in judgment that harms those he/she loves and, ultimately, leads to his/her exile or death. This “error in judgment”—the Greeks called it “hamartia”—grows from a tragic flaw, usually rooted in pride (hubris). Eventually, when it’s too late, the tragic hero recognizes and accepts his responsibility for the error. Because the hero’s goodness and flaw twine inextricably together, readers and viewers experience “catharsis” in response to the hero’s inevitable fall. This catharsis or purge consists of two emotions: we pity the hero because he meant well; we fear his fallen condition, recognizing that we can make the same kinds of mistakes. Paradoxically, the hero’s crushing defeat, though profoundly sad, uplifts us, causing us to recognize our capacities for loving self-sacrifice as well as for error. What about Willy Loman? Can a failed salesman who complains about his “goddam arch supports” (2329) qualify as a tragic hero? Support your views with close analysis of action from the play, including appropriate quotations.
“Well, what about it?” I asked. “Even though Biff at one point calls his father a ‘prince,’ Miller of course concedes that Willy lacks the aristocratic pedigree of the traditional tragic character—Prince Hamlet, King Lear, Oedipus Rex—but Willy otherwise qualifies, Miller insists, as a great-hearted man whose blunders crush those he loves but who uplifts us with his capacity to love self-sacrificially. How about those of you who journaled on this question? Will you share your thoughts?”
Kadrije quickly volunteered and proceeded to read a full-page entry, complete with quoted key phrases, arguing that Willy deserves our compassion for being “tired to death” but not our respect. Unlike tragic characters, she said, Willy never succeeds, never reaches a pinnacle of achievement, and therefore cannot be said to fall. He also fails to acknowledge, she continued, that his teachings to the boys have been “all wrong” and destructive. Blerta disagreed, saying that both his blunders and his death give him tragic dignity because of the immensity of his love.
Having emphatically praised these candid, thoughtful responses, I asked if anyone else would read his or her preliminary comments of one on the other three topics, which invite papers on Willy’s wife Linda, on models of business men in the play, or on Biff and Happy, the troubled sons of Willy and Linda:
- Willy credits Linda with being his “foundation and support” (2331). Do you agree? Has her love for Willy been constructive? Destructive? Both?
- Training his sons to become businessmen, Willy proclaims that if they are “well liked” they will “never want” (2339). Focusing on Willy, Charley, and Bernard, discuss Willy’s formula for success. Does the play imply another route to success?
- After Biff and Happy desert their father in the restaurant, Linda calls them a “pair of animals” who never loved their father (2384). To what extent do you agree with Linda?
Happily, more enthusiastic responses followed. First, Xhemile read her entry, which supported Kadrije’s view of Willy, condemning particularly his lack of integrity as both husband and father; she then praised Biff, who finally acknowledges the truth about all their failures and tries to save Willy with his sobbing plea to let go of his “phony dream” that the “well liked” succeed. Bierta next read her entry on Linda, conceding that she deeply loves Willy but insisting that her misguided support of Willy’s fictions makes his suicide inevitable, particularly after she refuses to confront him with the nipple he has placed on the gas pipe.
Encouraged by all these responses and the students’ willingness to read aloud, I reiterated my praise and asked them, for the next session, to commit to a topic and come to class with a rough draft. Looks like I’m in for some good reading.
Our first discussion in Twentieth-Century American Literature focused on feminist approaches to Susan Glaspell’s one-act play “Trifles” (1916), Zora Neale Hurston’s story “Sweat” (1926), and Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “Sexy” (1999). We began by reviewing the feminist case against the patriarchal order and for ‘a literature of their own.’ By the end of the session, students eagerly shared their journaling on “Trifles” and “Sweat,” but first we talked about “Sexy.” The results follow.
When I asked what they learned about Lahiri in the introduction, one student noted her British birth, her Bengali ancestry, and her American PhD, facts suggesting that by century’s end women and non-whites had emerged as strong voices in the worlds of literature and academe. After praising this apt answer, I asked for their initial impressions of Lahiri’s main character Miranda, as she learns from her friend Laxmi that her cousin’s husband shamelessly pursues an affair. Another student volunteered Miranda’s conventional response, “It sounds awful” (3250), and, without any prompting, also mentioned the irony that Miranda offers this response while thinking of her upcoming date with Dev, her lover, another woman’s husband.
Delighted by these quick, insightful responses, I next asked for their take on Dev and the nature of his affair with Miranda. “Does he seem romantic,” I asked, “as ‘sexy’ as he finds Miranda?” This question, to my further delight, generated a barrage of comments on Dev’s seeming tenderness—the hand-holding, the ear-whispering, the pining phone messages, the flowers, the kissing at the movies (3253). But when I asked what Mary Ellmann might say about Dev and Miranda’s behavior, the answers shifted to Dev’s cynical marketing techniques—the “flamingo pink shirt,” the missing wedding ring, his eye-rolling hint that his wife will be in India “for a few weeks,” his whining about being “lonely” (3252-53)—all suggesting a ‘love’ that has more to do with Miranda’s “sexy” long legs than with real tenderness (3253-54). Another student also guessed that Mary Ellman would express dismay over Miranda enjoying herself as Dev “propped her feet on top of his shoulders,” pinned her to the bed, and claimed passionately that “he couldn’t get enough of her” (3250), a clear image of phallic domination.
“If Miranda enjoys the affair,” I next asked, “why does she dump Dev at the end?” This prompt led to the students taking over the discussion, just as I had hoped, stressing the powerful impact that seven-year-old Rohin has on his sitter, Miranda, as this son of Laxmi’s cousin describes his philandering father and abandoned mother. In making this case for Miranda’s epiphany, students wisely stressed the details Lahiri provides—Rohin’s dark, “haggard” eyes, his description of his mother’s “puffiness,” her hours of crying, his definition of “sexy,” based on his father’s actions: “It means loving someone you don’t know” (3261, 3263). All these details, students said, reveal the devastating impact on wives and children caused by every affair. Realizing not only the pain of the boy and his mother but also her complicity in Dev’s cruel charade, Miranda, students concluded, takes a sisterly, feminist stance—“it wasn’t fair…to his wife”—and breaks off the affair (3264).
Not a bad start!
March 2, 2012
Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić published S. A Novel about the Balkans in 1999, just seven years after Serbian forces rounded up Bosnian Muslims and moved them to concentration camps, where prisoners—women and girls, men and boys—suffered all manner of humiliation and abuse but especially “mass rape,” what Drakulić calls “the most horrifying means of humiliation….Rape is about power, about one group of soldiers sending a clear message of intimidation to another group” (Penguin Reader’s Guide, 8).
Yet this terrifying novel has a tender, some would say hopeful, ending, for the character S begins to rebuild her sense of humanity by finally accepting motherhood. Impregnated by her rapists, S initially loathes the infant growing inside her “like a tumour,” a “parasite” engendered by countless brutish ‘fathers’ (2, 178). But after a prisoner-exchange moves her from the “women’s room,” the site of the rapes, to a refugee camp in Zagreb, others’ acts of kindness gradually overcome her fear of a child conceived in rape.
First, a Zagreb cousin houses her in her cramped apartment, freeing her from an infinitely less brutal but still dehumanizing ‘camp’ (149). Then in Stockholm, where S goes to have her baby, she stumbles across a school-mate, now a refugee worker, who houses S, gives her wholesome food and warm clothes, and tries to coax her away from her plan to give up her rape-child for adoption (170). Clearly, S needs such tenderness, for she continues to struggle with the “shame and guilt” (183) suffered by so many victims of rape. Longing to forget (175), S only hopes that some adoptive mother and father can give her baby what she can never provide, a “better past” (194).
But once her son arrives, S instinctively moves to cover the sleeping child. First she “recoils,” but when the child “closes his tiny fist around her extended finger,” S feels “utter tranquility” and melts into motherhood, determined to teach her boy that “hate” can be “transformed into love” (196, 197, 199).
Asked about this ostensibly hopeful conclusion to the novel, Drakulić denies that “this ending is so hopeful” (Guide 8), stressing instead the ambiguity. Accepting her child changes everything, presumably for the good, for S and her son, but how, Drakulic wonders, will S tell her son one day the “horror” of the “truth” about his fathers? And of course this union of mother and son changes nothing about the capacity of men to make other men rape their sons before shooting them both (109), to gang-rape a woman and then extinguish their cigarettes on their victim’s breast before urinating in her mouth (62, 78).
Yet the novel does unfold the reality of friendship, as noted above. It also portrays characters who perform life-endangering acts of kindness and courage, such as N, who works in the kitchen, smuggling warm bread and edible soup to the prisoners (92). Consistently, too, the novel traces S’s manipulative seductions of her abusers, including the camp Captain, acts of courage and intelligence that enable her to survive (97-102). All such actions–in this novel about victimization, helplessness—underscore choice and, as Drakulić puts it, our “moral responsibility,” our humanizing duty to take another’s hand (Guide 3).
March 5, 2012
March 4, 2012
Susan Southworth’s 2007 novel uncovers, as the title promises, the horrors that always transpire whenever one people, usually in the name of liberty, redefines another people as objects, a reclassification that characterizes ethnic cleansing as patriotism. But this beautifully written novel does so much more. Peeling back the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate, Southworth shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others, a revelation that should inspire us all even as we weep for their pain.
By end of the novel, we follow Donald, a retired American linguist, into southwest Kosovaran town Prizren, where the Kosova Liberation Army celebrates its 1999 triumph over the Serbs, a victory made possible by NATO bombing. Absent from Prizren for a month, Donald expects to find what he left five weeks before: his Turkish friend and fellow linguist Bayram, with whom Donald can share his experiences living with Serbian peasants and resume their discussion of the Albanian language and culture.
Instead, he finds Bayram’s house trashed and valuable manuscripts scattered all over the grounds, acts of the new owner, an army thug. Bayram himself Donald finds in a make-shift jail, cuffed and beaten, lying on a floor littered with feces and surrounded by walls splattered with other victims’ blood (100-108). Though beaten himself, Donald escapes the Kosovaran violence via Macedonia, but not before witnessing Serbs shot in the street (120). In the final chapter, the narrator shows us the fate of the Serbian peasants that had welcomed Donald: Petar has been beheaded, and his wife Leposava wonders off in a daze, looking for the “home”—their cabin and their country—now a “bloody mosaic,” the work of soldiers, not much more than boys, intoxicated by liberty and by a culture of retribution and guns (122).
Before this bloody ending, however, primarily through Donald’s eyes, we learn to see Albanians, Turks, and Serbs not as oppressors or victims but as human beings worthy of our understanding and respect. Through Donald, for instance, we learn to revere the ancient Albanian language and culture (33), and that respect helps us understand how Donald can look at an angry Albanian soldier and see a scared boy, a “sweet-faced teenager” (104) with baggy fatigues on his “skinny frame” (100). Through Donald we also learn to relish coffee, dates, water pipes, baths—all things Turkish, especially his courteous friend Bayram (32-40).
Through Donald we learn as well to respect Serbs who “won’t leave.” Bogdan the Serbian policeman, for example, earns that respect by risking his life daily helping peasants to steer clear of the Liberation Army (5-15, 88-96), as does the young Serbian mountain man by hiding Donald, suspected of being an enemy courier (56-59). Through Donald’s month-long sojourn with the Serbian farmer and his wife, we also come to admire Petar and Leposava, their spiritual intimacy with the land, their domestic harmony and peace, their generosity. Revering their American guest, they feed him hearty bean soup, fresh eggs, and oatmeal cakes; they teach him to hoe the garden and to trap rabbits for supper; they show him how to bathe in the rain-water, how to dance with abandon, how to smell the seasons and fish in the stream (64-86). They also share with Donald their Serbian epic poems, accompanied by Petar’s gusle, a one-string instrument that can come to life “like a snake” (83) under Petar’s bow and moan “like a sad wind” (77). All Serbs, Petar sighs, “have too much history,” and he relates to Donald their own stories of grief over a grandfather lost in the war with Bulgaria, over an infant son who should not have died (80-83).
Possessed of these histories, we can no longer vilify oppressors and count victims; we can only acknowledge human beings and cry for the Balkans.