Rounding up the course, ppt and then some


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In a very interesting TED talk Elif Shafak relates some of her thoughts about the politics of fiction. Following our discussion last Friday, this talk is certainly a nice way to summarize some of the topics we discussed about.

“Listening to stories widens the imagination; telling them lets us leap over cultural walls, embrace different experiences, feel what others feel. Elif Shafak builds on this simple idea to argue that fiction can overcome identity politics.”

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Daisy Buchanan and the American Dream: no longer young nor beautiful

Daisy Buchanan has become an immortal character in Anglo-American literature as the personification of the American Dream, as well as the embodiment of all its shortcomings. Through his dazzling depiction of her, Fitzgerald makes her tantalizing, alluring, and extremely flawed, employing her character as a metaphor to illustrate the frailty of the society he lived in, a comparison whose echoes ring true to this day.

The onomatology of the name “Daisy” implies innocence and purity, and the imagery of the Daisy flower complements that used by Fitzgerald to describe Daisy throughout the novel; she is the “golden girl”, “dressed in white,” who “blossomed” for Gatsby “like a flower.” Her character is vivacious and sensuous, traits Fitzgerald conveys through descriptions of Daisy’s voice, which is “full of money…that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.”

To Gatsby, Daisy has become idealized; his attainment of her and everything she represents, wealth and sophistication (“Sophisticated- God, I’m sophisticated!”) would be tantamount to the fulfillment of all his dreams, his own individual self-actualization, which is the ultimate goal of the American Dream.

But the weakness Fitzgerald reveals in Daisy’s character exposes that Daisy, like the American Dream, is a false promise. The American Dream glorifies the self-made man. Any person, no matter their background or their upbringing, could supposedly become successful if they come to America, which to many immigrants of today and yesteryear represent the glittering hope of a better future. Fitzgerald, through the decadence of the characters in Gatsby, especially Daisy, conveys that American Dream is just that, a dream, and that the continent was idealized by its inhabitants and immigrants just as Daisy was idealized by Gatsby.

Daisy is, at her core, a snob, just as American society is characterized by the same social prejudices as the old world. Fitzgerald makes this clear this description of her perception of Gatsby’s party:

She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ‘place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island Fishing village -appalled by its raw vigor that chafed under the old euphemisms and by the too obtrusive fate that herded its inhabitants along a short cut from nothing to nothing. She saw something awful in the very simplicity she failed to understand.”

Daisy looks upon Gatsby and his house with condescending eyes, despite the fact that all he has done was for her sake:

So the whole caravansary had fallen in like a card house at the disapproval in her eyes.”

In the end, Daisy disappoints the reader, and with Tom, “retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness.” This parallels how she left things with Gatsby when he left for war: “”She vanished into her rich house, into her rich, full life, leaving Gatsby -nothing” She remains “gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”

The imagery of Daisy in her gleaming white takes on new meaning. She and Jordan are”as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire;” cold, distant and far removed from the problems of the “real world.”

Turn on MTV and you’ll see that not much has changed. Much of western society is too preoccupied with hedonistic goals to worry about the suffering of the rest of the world, thus perpetuating a stereotype of the “ignorant American” (sorry, Ana, if you’re reading this, I hope you know I don’t mean you).

This leaves many people, upon closer inspection of the American Dream, disappointed; while others, like Gatsby, cling on to an undying hope.

NaNoWriMo starts today

50.000 words in 30 days

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How It Works (taken from the original web site: http://nanowrimo.org/how-it-works):

During NaNoWriMo, you write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. The challenge may be hard, but the logistics are not! Here, let us guide you through ‘em.

1. Sign up for our website with that big, blue “Sign Up!” button on the homepage. You’ll get an email validation link a few minutes later.

2. As part of the sign-up process, you’ll choose a home region for in-person events near you. This is totally optional, but we think it’s a pretty awesome part of the NaNo experience.

3. Our user dashboard will usher you through the rest of your account set-up stuff. Click on the grayed-out badges to fill out your profile, say hello in our forums, and add writing buddies.

4. On October 1, you’ll be able to add information about your upcoming novel to your profile. Giving your work a title or brief synopsis gets you 225% more pumped for November. It’s a fact.

5. You can also use October to read past author pep talks, grab participant web badges, meet folks in the forums, and learn more about our nonprofit.

6. At midnight on November 1, start writing. Work on your manuscript using any method where you can track your word count. Word-processing program, notebook, typewriter, stone slab: they all work.

7. Update your word count whenever you can. Some like every day; others prefer a few times a week. No matter when, you can do it in that word-count update menu at the top of every page on our site.

8. Stay motivated with pep talks (we’ll send them to your on-site inbox and your email), forum chatter, and in-person events in your region. There’s also a big world of NaNo out there in social media: find us on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and Pinterest.

9. Starting on November 25, you can validate your novel to win. If it’s over 50,000 words, paste the text into the word-count validator. A few robotic calculations later, we’ll declare you an official NaNoWriMo winner! From there, you’ll be able to collect a few prime novelist goodies.

10. If you enjoy your NaNo experience, please donate to support our mission. We believe in making this a more creative world, and we’d love your help getting there. (Here’s more about why others donate, as well as additional ways to give.)

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BENITO CERENO AND PRECONCEPTIONS

This summer I did an online course with the Wesleyan University on Social Psychology through coursera.com. On the first weeks there were some lectures on how people construct reality and the first question was if we all saw reality the same way. The answer was no, we don’t see it the same way because we don’t see it all. In fact, our brain tends to focus on useful information and it deletes the rest.

One of the focuses of our perception is defined by the Confirmation Bias theory: “a preference for information that is consistent with the preconception, rather than information that challenges it”. In other words, we only see what we can expect to see.

[The color changing card trick: 

Just ike in the linked video, which shows the color changing card trick, the character of Captain Delano ignores all the evidence of what’s happening because he can’t believe it possible. A person’s perception isn’t neutral, and if it is focused on one thing, it can’t be aware of others.

Even at the very ending, when Benito Cereno desperately jumps onto his ship, Delano can’t come to any other conclusion but that don Benito wants to kill him, and that Babo is a good servant that wants to help his master.

The dismayed officer of the boat eagerly asked what this meant. To which, Captain Delano, turning a disdainful smile upon the unaccountable Benito Cereno, answered that, for his part, he neither knew nor cared; but it seemed as if the Spaniard had taken it into his head to produce the impression among his people that the boat wanted to kidnap him. “Or else- give way for your lives,” he wildly added, starting at a clattering hubbub in the ship, above which rang the tocsin of the hatchet-polishers; and seizing Don Benito by the throat he added, “this plotting pirate means murder!” Here, in apparent verification of the words, the servant, a dagger in his hand, was seen on the rail overhead, poised, in the act of leaping, as if with desperate fidelity to befriend his master to the last; while, seemingly to aid the black, the three Spanish sailors were trying to clamber into the hampered bow. Meantime, the whole host of Negroes, as if inflamed at the sight of their jeopardized captain, impended in one sooty avalanche over the bulwarks.”

Actually, this is one of the consequences of the confirmation bias theory: that our selective perception can serve to preserve and strengthen our social expectations and stereotypes, especially when we aren’t motivated to question our beliefs.

But Delano is not the only one biased: Melville is too. This is evidenced in the characterization and also in the main plot of Benito Cereno. In the end, who is presented as the villain of the story? It is the black slave who seems to embody all the evil characteristics. He doesn’t only lead the mutiny, he is also responsible for the death of Aranda and the exhibition of his skeleton, he is the one who threatens Cereno, the one who is frightening and has the wicked plans. Melville doesn’t write about the reasons that lead to the rebellion of the slaves, doesn’t say anything bad about Aranda, the slave trader, or about don Benito. Even when Babo is killed, it is presented as the rescue of a good man, don Benito, from the rebels.

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; “you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro”

Presenting the black as the villains, Melville is offering the reader the conception he expects, even if he subtly indicates the motivations that lead to the rebellion.

Water, Water Everywhere: the Ocean in Robinson Crusoe

The_Great_Wave_off_KanagawaThroughout Defoe’s novel, the protagonist Robinson Crusoe’s fate is linked to that of the sea. At the beginning of the novel, it calls to him like a siren song, promising a life of adventure and glory, and leading him to stray from a stable career in law. To illustrate the temptation the sea poses to Crusoe, Defoe employs metaphors associated with the ocean in Crusoe’s narration. The protagonists describes father, as a member of the middle class, as a man who “never had been exposed to tempests at sea or troubles on shore,” thus resolving, “like a true repenting prodigal,” to heed his father’s wishes and return home. However, he eventually “drowned” all his repentance and returned to “the current” of his former desires. Through his consistent use of powerful aquatic imagery, Defoe enacts the sensation of rough waters, foreshadowing the disasters that Crusoe encounters at sea. Defoe’s employment of this figurative language to illustrate Crusoe’s decision-making process illustrates a parallel between the protagonist and the ocean. Like the sea, Crusoe’s character changes throughout the novel; and like the element of water, which changes form to suit its container, Crusoe adapts to survive any situation, no matter how dire.

In Robinson Crusoe, Defoe often uses aquatic imagery in conjunction with religious symbolism, as evidenced in Crusoe’s likening himself to the prodigal son. This motif is repeated during the shipwreck scene that leaves Crusoe stranded on the island:

“…we all knew that when the boat came near the shore she would be dashed in a thousand pieces by the breach of the sea. However, we committed our souls to God in the most earnest manner…”

Through the trope of Crusoe’s deliverance after facing trials in the ocean, Defoe alludes to the sacrament of Baptism. The author’s Presbyterian roots may explain this association between water and providence.

By means of Crusoe’s vivid descriptions of his travails at sea and his overcoming of this force of nature, Defoe demonstrates the aspirational nature of the humans. Any reader of Crusoe’s account almost can’t help but hold their breath for air as Defoe leaves them floundering through air in the following passages:

“…the sea ran mountains high, and broke upon us every three or four minutes…”

“…a raging wave, mountain-like, came rolling astern of us, and plainly bade us expect the coup de grace.”

“the sea came after me as high as a great hill, and as furious as an enemy…”

On a personal note, Defoe’s description of Crusoe’s battles with the ocean brought back memories of surfing, which frequently involves getting pummeled by the sea. This line was especially graphic:

“The wave that came upon me again buried me at twenty or thirty feet deep in its own body, and I could feel myself carried with a mighty force and swiftness toward the shore- a very great way; but I held my breath, and assisted myself to swim still forward with all my might.”

Just as Crusoe continued his journeys despite his initial shipwreck into the vast unknown dangers of the ocean, surfers continue to paddle out hoping to tame and ride an epic wave. This uniquely human trait of testing our limits is epitomized in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

(Disclaimer: I have not, nor will I probably ever, surf a wave like that. Hah. I wish.)

Understanding Jealousy through literature, Parul Sehgal

“What is jealousy? What drives it, and why do we secretly love it? No study has ever been able to capture its “loneliness, longevity, grim thrill” — that is, except for fiction, according to Parul Sehgal, an editor for “The New York Times Book Review”. In an eloquent meditation she scours pages from literature to show how jealousy is not so different from a quest for knowledge.”